1. Vendemiaire Part 1. Wither Legal Aid?

First day of the new regime, as the firm where I worked is absorbed into another larger firm. All the usual issues over supervision, disbursements, etc., etc.. All the necessary adaptions to working practice, culture of firm etc., etc.. But beyond that, the whole takeover represents a more serious symptom of what is happening to the sector that does publicly funded work, particularly for civil legal aid.

It seems fair to say that the future direction of civil legal aid funding has been made clear, even though the final Carter report is still awaited and pilot projects are still piloting. The future looks roughly like this:

In urban areas, contracts will be awarded to firms that can provide an ‘holistic’ service, meaning firms that can handle all areas of civil legal aid – family, mental health, community care (social welfare, housing) and so on.

Where there are areas of particular need and lack of provision, Community Legal Centres, CLACS, will be set up, co-funded between LSC and Local Authorities.

In the rural advice deserts, ‘federations’ of providers will be funded to attempt to provide the full range of advice, the CLANs.

This sounds nice. I’m sure it plays well in Powerpoint. But behind the scattered ‘holistic’s and ‘Community care’s, it is becoming very clear what this means. Let us look at each of these proposals.

First – the urban all providers. Granted, there are some superb examples of this beast in existence. There are also some less than wonderful versions. There are very few of them, good or bad, in total. Far fewer than could possibly sustain the whole load of urban civil legal aid work, even if all of them were prepared to deal properly or at all with the less profitable forms of work. But who the hell does Social Welfare anymore?

In any case, it means the end of the local specialist firm, actutely aware of the nature of the local client base, the specific problems of their area and of the foibles of the local authorities. But surely the CLACS, as some kind of reinvented Law Centre can fill in the gaps…

Or not. Secondly, note that the CLACS are in large part to be funded by Local Authorities. This must raise serious doubts over their willingness to take action on the client’s behalf against their paymasters. It is also very unclear how far CLACS will receive LSC funding for actions. At the moment, it appears their remit is more advice and advocacy based. What this all means for existing Law Centres is also an interesting and, so far, unanswered question, but it doesn’t look good.

Thirdly, the CLANS. Although I personally think that the federation model is a way forward for civil legal aid firms, and possibly a preferable model to the ‘all-in-one’ large urban firm, I’m not sure how this actually answers the rural advice desert problem. When we are in a situation where someone’s closest provider in England could be 150 miles away and there is a large, if disparate, unsatisfied demand for (unfortunately badly paid) services, I really don’t see how some sharing of expertise amongst existing firms, however much to be applauded, can possibily be an adequate response.

What does this add up to? My opinion, uninformed as it may be, is that there are severe problems ahead for civil legal aid (and for criminal, I’m sure). A few large and well run firms will survive and do OK. Specialist firms are mostly in deep trouble. The most desperate clients will find fewer and fewer firms willing and capable of taking them on or with the necessary knowledge and expertise.

Oh, and as I search for a training contract, I’ve really made a bad career choice, n’est-ce pas?

[edit. Another data point and some acute commentary on ukblawger. We’re all doomed, I tell you. Mind you, I for one distrust the idea of a salaried legal service. How close is the relation to the paymasters? Currently one can judicially review the LSC, with public funding. Could one JR one’s manager?]

About Giles Peaker

Giles Peaker is a solicitor and partner in the Housing and Public Law team at Anthony Gold Solicitors in South London. You can find him on Linkedin and on Twitter. Known as NL round these parts, and still is Nearly Legal on Google +.
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