Standards for the Provision of Civil Legal Aid

Standard 5.4 on Case Files

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Standard

A provider should establish and maintain an electronic file in its case management system or a hard-copy file for each of its cases that records all material facts and transactions, provides a detailed chronological record of work done and sets forth a planned course of action.

Commentary

General considerations

Electronic or hard-copy case files should organize critical elements of a case in a logical and coherent fashion. Each should contain the following essential information:

  • An indication of the options available to and selected by the client, and a statement of the client's objective;
  • A full chronological record of client interviews, adversary contacts, witness interviews, field investigations and records searches, including dates, names of persons contacted, important facts ascertained and important statements, concessions and allegations made;
  • For clients with limited English proficiency, an indication of their primary language, interpreters and translators used and copies of translated materials;
  • Copies of all written correspondence, pleadings, legal memoranda, legal research and other documents representing work done on the case, organized systematically for ready reference;
  • For electronic correspondence, either a hardcopy or an electronic version of such communications;
  • Consistent with the complexity of the case, a specific plan with a clear delineation of tasks and a timetable with deadlines for completion of each task;
  • A record of time spent on the case adequate to support any request for attorneys' fees, if appropriate, and to meet the provider's management needs as well as any requirements imposed by the provider's funding sources;
  • For closed cases, a closing memorandum that summarizes the work done for the client and the results achieved.

Standard client files

For those cases for which it has direct ethical and professional responsibility, a provider should maintain standard case files that facilitate transfer of cases among the provider's practitioners and encourage good lawyering habits. A thorough, self-contained file that records progress on each case in a standardized fashion eases review of the representation by supervisors. New practitioners should be fully trained in the established procedures to ensure uniform file maintenance.

Electronic case management systems ensure uniform file maintenance and provide the capacity for quick retrieval of files from any location. These systems also permit easy access to files to facilitate supervisory review of a practitioner's work and sharing of files among multiple practitioners who may be working together on a case.

A provider should integrate electronic and hard-copy files so that all documents and records, including records of telephone conversations and e-mail messages, can either be found in one place or are appropriately linked to assure that all practitioners working on the case have immediate access to all pertinent information. Providers should also have systems in place to assure that all electronic files are backed-up on a regular basis to protect against accidental loss.

Outside attorneys providing representation for clients referred by the provider should organize files for clients referred to them in conformance with the established procedures of the practitioner or firm handling the case. Outside attorneys or law firms that represent a large number of clients under contract with a provider may be expected to conform to the provider’s policy regarding standard case files.

Transfer of cases

Staff practitioners often find themselves responsible for cases they did not initiate. This occurs because of staff turnover, program restructuring, or temporary absences for illness or vacation. Complete, current files make it possible for a new practitioner to take up a case with minimum delay or disruption to the client relationship. Electronic case management systems and integration of electronic and hard-copy files make the transfer of cases to a new practitioner relatively simple and seamless, and help ensure that the new practitioner has all of the case information necessary in order to effectively represent the client.

Procedures for case transfer should be designed to minimize the impact of the transfer on the client and the quality of the work. Whenever possible, the person who previously handled the case should prepare a succinct transfer memorandum analyzing the case, directing attention to the next steps to be taken and targeting dates to be met. Clients should be notified immediately of transfer of their cases and should be assured that their interests are fully protected. They should be told the name and contact information for the new practitioner with whom they should communicate and be given an opportunity to meet with the new practitioner as soon as feasible.

Case protocols

A provider may wish to develop case protocols, benchmarks and checklists to guide practitioners in handling repetitive, routine legal problems. Protocols set forth the basic issues to be addressed and the essential steps to be taken in routine cases. While helpful, protocols should only be used by the practitioner as a road map to evaluate the client’s particular objectives in a positive and creative way, given the circumstances in the case, and to test for new and unique issues. Protocols may also be designed to draw attention to common fact situations or legal issues, so that the provider may consider such problems in the priority setting process and direct the allocation of its resources to the efficient and economic resolution of such recurring problems. Benchmarks set out expected, realistic outcomes that should be achieved in addressing commonly recurring legal issues. Benchmarks may vary among offices, given the law and practice in each jurisdiction. Checklists can be helpful in ensuring that all steps have been taken and all required documents have been prepared, submitted and included in the client's file.