When the government’s intentions to slash civil legal aid were made clear in the Green Paper preceding the LASPO Bill there was a collective sinking of hearts throughout the not-for-profit advice sector.
Those of us with Legal Services Commission contracts were used to being battered by the system. We had been through many changes, from the simple green form system through tendering to fixed fee payments. This was coupled with the introduction of ever more imaginative variants on the audit system which sometimes appeared unduly harsh and intended for the sole purpose of recouping money from ever more hard-pressed suppliers (that is what we were now called).
Beginning of the end
However if the proposals were accepted this looked like the beginning of the end for civil legal aid and coupled with the cuts to local government would be likely to have a devastating effect on those specialists providing legal advice and representation within the not for profit sector including Law Centres.
What could we as Law Centres do to try to ensure the continuation of the free service to those who relied on it – generally the more vulnerable in society – those in debt, those suffering physical or mental illness, carers, the elderly and disabled and those on low incomes?
An important and controversial discussion opened up within the Law Centre movement. There was general outrage at the extent of the proposed reduction to crucial services which were already under pressure even before the austerity measures dropped us ‘ all in it together’. There was a unanimous determination to mobilise staff and clients to resist the proposals. Law Centres joined the Justice for All campaign, attending the launch at Westminster and lobbying local MPs. At Rochdale we invited local MPs to come to see our work and made a short film featuring the experiences of clients which we used to publicise the campaign against the Bill. We wrote a submission to the select committee which was published in its report.
The more controversial side of the discussion concerned Law Centres attempting to survive the double whammy of cuts to legal aid and cuts to local authority budgets in order to preserve this important service. A particularly lively debate resulted via email and at the Law Centres Federation AGM.
The previously unthinkable had been mooted – could or should Law Centres consider some kind of charging regime to try to sustain the service?
At Rochdale the demand for Immigration advice is at times overwhelming. Since it seemed likely that Immigration advice would come out of scope, the question was: would some clients be prepared to and have the means to pay a reasonable amount for reliable legal advice and representation if the free service was either no longer available or had to be restricted to a much smaller number of clients?
We used our free immigration telephone advice line to ask this question and many times the response was – yes – if a service was available which clients could trust and which charged a reasonable amount many clients would be prepared to pay. In practice clients wishing to sponsor a family member to join the family or to visit had anyway to show that they had the means to support this person. They might however hesitate to approach a private practice due to the often high cost and the problems this area of law has had with a small number of disreputable advisers.
We therefore felt this might be a sensible way to pilot the idea, always intending that any income generated would be used to continue a free service to those who could not afford to pay even a small amount.
Within the charging debate in general we always felt at Rochdale that we would prefer to keep any charging work entirely separate from the Law Centre so that there would be no confusion for clients and so as not to reflect on or damage in any way the ethos of the Law Centre movement which was built on the principle of providing free advice to the most vulnerable. The bottom line however, in our view was that if we did not take some radical action, clients would be left with no service at all if areas of law went out of scope of legal aid and local authorities were unable to plug the gap.
We produced a business plan and projected budget but with no finance the physical separation of the new service was not possible. Thanks to backing from the transition fund however and persistence with insurers and the Solicitors Regulation Authority, Rochdale Legal Enterprise, a community interest company, took shape and eventually occupation of its own office two doors up from RLC.
We were also extremely fortunate that the Restructuring Fund (provided by the Baring and Esmee Fairbairn Foundations) supported our vision and awarded us a grant to expand our service into employment law which is now up and running.
It is in no way envisaged that this service should replace publicly funded work and many worthy types of case will not be suitable for funding in this way, for example, minimum wage claims where the value of the claim will make it unsuitable for private funding but where the work is of vital importance in protecting the rights of the lowest paid workers against unscrupulous and more powerful employers.
Our aim is that from the continuation of these services we may be able to produce a modest income to contribute to some measure of free service in those areas out of scope of public funding, but valuable in protecting the legal rights of the more vulnerable members of our society.