Archive for September 2013
Government cuts to the legal aid budget are making people who want to deliver legal services to the poorest in society think hard about how this can be done into the future. I have already noted that one law firm has created an Alternative Business Structure to enable it to use its profits from private client work to fund its social welfare advice work. See https://martinpartington.com/2013/08/
To get more general thinking going on this, the Legal Action Group has established a Commission under the chairmanship of Lord Low to develop a new strategic approach. It has recently published an important Consultation Document on which it is consulting until the end of September 2013.
As background, the Commission states: “For many people, having access to advice and legal support on Social Welfare Law issues is central to ensuring that they receive fair treatment at the hands of the state, when in dispute with an employer or when struggling with debt. This type of advice and support is currently provided by both the not for profit sector (for example, by organisations such as Law Centres or Citizens Advice Bureaux), through the private sector (solicitors) and occasionally via welfare rights units run by Local Authorities.
“These services are currently funded by both central and local government as well as by charitable trusts and the private sector. However, changes to the scope of legal aid as a result of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 combined with other reductions in central and local government funding due to the period of austerity are threatening the provision of these services as never before.
“These cuts come at a time when advice agencies are seeing an increase in demand due to a combination of welfare reform, other austerity measures and the financial downturn.”
The aim of the Commission is “to develop a strategy for the future provision of Social Welfare Law services, which:
- meets the need for the public, particularly the poor and marginalised, to have access to good quality independent legal advice;
- is informed by an analysis of the impact of funding changes and by an assessment of what can realistically be delivered and supported in the future;
- influences the thinking and manifestos of the political parties in the run up to the 2015 election.”
In its Consultation Paper summary, the main components of the Commission’s strategy are::
- Legal aid should be viewed as part of a continuum including information, general advice, specialist advice, legal help and legal representation, rather than as a stand alone funding mechanism; the more we can do at the beginning of this spectrum, the less we should have to do at the end.
- By reducing demand, taking early action and simplifying the legal system it will be possible to reduce some of the need for advice and legal support.
- For those who can afford to pay, affordable advice and legal support should be more accessible and the routes into it much better communicated and understood.
- People with pressing problems need a simple and effective way of accessing good advice, without hurdles or confusion. Much basic provision can be developed using a combination of public legal education, national telephone helplines and websites, local advice networks and specialist support for front line advice agencies.
- More in-depth and intense support should be targeted at those most in need.
- Ensuring the quality of all levels of service provision must be a high priority
- We would like to see a more open and collaborative advice sector. There is considerable scope for local advice agencies to work more closely together and in some cases even to merge. We would also like to see the national advice services umbrella bodies work more closely together and share their resources and experience more widely
- The importance of advice and legal support on social welfare law to people’s lives, coupled with challenges to its continued provision and additional costs to government that are likely to result if no action is taken, makes it imperative that the next UK Government develops a National Strategy for Advice and Legal Support in England for 2015-20 and that the Welsh Government develops a similar strategy for Wales
- Local authorities should co-produce or commission local advice and legal support plans in conjunction with local not-for-profit and commercial advice agencies; these plans should review the services available, including helplines and websites, whilst targeting face to face provision to ensure that it reaches the most vulnerable and ensuring some resources are available for legal representation where it is most needed, to supplement the reduced scope of legal aid
- We estimate that currently, post the implementation of the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), there is about £400m per year available to fund advice and legal support services- mainly coming from local authorities, the Money Advice Service and the legal aid that remains for social welfare law.
- We estimate at least a further £100m pa is required in order to ensure a basic level of provision
- We are calling on the next UK Government to provide half this extra funding by establishing a 10 year National Advice and Legal Support Fund of £50m pa, to be administered by the Big Lottery Fund (BIG), to help develop provision
- We propose this Fund should be financed by the Ministry of Justice, the Cabinet Office and the DWP, as the main creator of the need for advice and legal support (on the polluter pays principle)
- 90% of the Fund should be used to fund local provision, with 10% for national initiative.
- BIG should allocate the 90% share of the National Fund to local authorities, based on indicators of need, to help implement local advice and legal support plans, which should be prepared in conjunction with the local advice sector.
- We are also calling on other national and local statutory, voluntary and commercial funders to contribute a further £50m pa to help develop provision. These should include NHS clinical commissioning groups, housing associations, additional Money
Advice Service funding, charities, trusts and foundations and lawyer fund generation schemes, such as the interest on money held for clients and dormant accounts.
- Most of our recommendations apply equally to Wales, but it will be important to build on the momentum resulting from the Welsh Government’s Advice Services Review published in May 2013.
A final report is due to be published at the end of 2013. it makes clear that legal aid budgets, as such, are unlikely to be restored so that alternative funding models must be developed.
Links to the full consultation report are at http://www.lowcommission.org.uk/Can-you-help
When I was preparing the last edition of the book, in October 2012, the full details of how the legal aid scheme would work once the Legal Aid Agency had started its work, were not available. As a result of the changes that are now fully effective there is a number of points in the book that are now out of date.
1 The Funding Code (see p 273), under which the former Legal Services Commission operated, has been abolished. The new Legal Aid Agency works under the regulations that have been made under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. These include most importantly the Civil Legal Aid (Procedure) Regulations 2012/3098, see http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2012/3098/contents/made; and the Civil Legal Aid (Merits Criteria) Regulations 2013, see http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2013/104/contents/made.
2 The Lord Chancellor’s priorities (p 273) are repealed and do not apply to the Legal Aid Agency.
3 Similarly the statement of Objectives for the Legal Services Commission (p 275) has been abolished and does not apply to the Legal Aid Agency