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BPP University Legal Advice Clinics are rewarded the Advice Quality Standard

Tony Martin, Head of Clinics, considers the audit process

Recently we successfully underwent the biennial audit of BPP University Legal Advice Clinic. Informal conversations with former colleagues who still work in Legal Aid revealed a general consensus that I was mad to undergo an audit voluntarily!

When I came to BPP almost six years ago and took over the housing law clinic, I was keen that we would not only deliver an excellent service to students and clients, but be able to demonstrate that we were doing so. To that end I looked at the various quality awards on offer and the Advice Quality Standard (AQS) seemed the right fit.

The AQS is the quality mark for organisations that organisations providing independent, free, social welfare legal advice. It is awarded through an independent, external assessment process. Organisations that hold the standard have demonstrated that they are easily accessible, effectively managed, and employ staff with the skills and knowledge to meet the needs of their clients.

During the audit, the AQS requires evidence in the following areas:
• Access to the service
• Seamless service
• Running the organisation
• People management
• Running the service
• Meeting client’s needs
• Commitment to quality

We obtained the AQS in 2015 and were one of very few university based free legal advice clinics to have done so. Since then the clinics we provide have expanded to include additional areas of law and to deliver advice outside of BPP itself. At each stage of expansion we have worked hard to ensure that we maintain compliance with the AQS.

The Secret of Success

There are three ingredients to a successful audit.
The first is to make sure that you comply with the standard under which you are audited. In the case of AQS this is set out in a detailed manual, but it has changed since we were first awarded it (and version 3 is on the horizon). That standard is reflected in our own clinic handbook, which governs the way we all – staff, students and external volunteer supervisors – work.
The second is preparation. We created an indexed file of the all the relevant policies and procedures for use by the Assessor, Neil Huxtable. We regularly carry out peer to peer audits of files.
The third is openness. We gave Neil unfettered access to our electric file management system and lined up as many volunteer student advisors to speak to Neil as were available.

What’s the Point?

Given that there is no requirement for a legal advice clinic such as ours to hold a quality standard, you might still be wondering what the point is. In addition to being able to demonstrate both internally (to the wider university, to current and prospective students) and externally (to clients and prospective clients, to volunteer supervisors and other partners) our commitment to quality, the audit process itself provides detailed feedback. This time the assessment report noted that:

There are an impressive number of good practices across every heading A-G of the AQS Standard (an achievement in itself), where the organisation has exceeded the requirements of the AQSv2 to a significant extent.

A number of area of good practice were highlighted:
• The organisation produces a detailed annual review of performance to which all staff contribute
• The use of ‘Textburst’, an online SMS service, to automatically remind clients of forthcoming appointments
• In addition to a risk assessment the organisation has produced a detailed business continuity plan
• BLAC adheres to a very thorough recruitment guide that addresses all aspects of recruitment within BPP. In the case of student advisers, there is a rigorous process of recruitment based on written submission contained within an informative application pack
• Comprehensive training and development plans and records that record all learning and development needs of staff and how they have been addressed
• All files examined on the Intralinks case management system were well structured and easily accessible
• Clear written instructions and checklists to assist student advisers when making telephone contact with clients
• The strong emphasis on client confidentiality in policy, procedure and practice demonstrates the commitment of the organisation to safeguarding the interests of clients
• A paucity of complaints together with fulsome praise and appreciation voiced by BLAC ‘s clients is indicative of the high quality of service provided and professionalism of all staff, volunteers and student advisers in addressing clients’ needs.

The outcome of the audit and the narrative report tells us a great deal about the dedication of BPP students and external supervisors to providing free legal advice and the high quality of the staff working in the clinics.