Monday, December 11, 2006

Carter Review: free legal advice going down the drain

Karen Buck MP for Regent's Park and North Kensington has organised an adjournment debate in Parliament on the 13/12/06 at 3pm around the changes to legal aid. During the summer the Legal Services Commission (LSC) in conjunction with Lord Carter published a review which will massively overhaul legal aid and totally change the face of advice. It is very bad news.

I posted about the review in late October but things have started to hot up and now there's this adjournment debate taking place this week. One area in which these proposals are causing consternation is the idea of fixed fees.

This is very problematic as some cases take longer than others i.e. organising an appeal where someone is being turned down, say, for Disability Living Allowance (DLA), homeless cases, cases which have complex and multiple problems, immediate risk cases such as woman escaping domestic violence and immigration cases. And complex cases are longer to organise therefore more expensive. Pressure will be put under advisors to take on shorter cases.

Fixed fees will also have an impact on London based services as the LSC will treat London as the same as everywhere else in the country and no concession will be shown even though the capital city is more expensive to live. These proposals will impact on quality of advice and time spent preparing a case. Law centres, for example, are over stretched already and people are turned away but it will get far, far worse if these proposals go through.

A study published by the Law Centres Federation (LCF) have found that law centres are under considerable pressure and have more clients than they can physically help. Certain areas such as immigration, housing, employment, and welfare and debt law are becoming more difficult to access for clients.

Worryingly, immediate legal help, for example, a woman escaping domestic violence who needs an emergency injunction will have severe problems as many law centres don’t have the capacity to provide this service and finding solicitors to take on the case has also proved problematic. Under the Carter proposals things again will get much worse. The Law Centres Federation has voted to boycott the review’s implementation unless significant changes have happened and solicitors are threatening strike action.

The changes will happen next April 2007. These proposals will impact most on the poor and powerless in society.

And yet Bridget Prentice (Parliamentary under-secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs) in a letter in Friday’s Guardian states that: “It is about protecting consumers, increasing choice and improving standards. And it is about putting the consumer at the heart of the system for the first time”.

These people use words like “consumers” and “choice”. Who exactly are the consumers? And how can you have choice when advice agencies are shrinking and diminishing in size because of being starved of funds?

Criminal law is also being targeted by the Carter review. Legal aid is essentially about:

1. All citizens can be confident that they can enforce their rights and are held accountable for fulfilling their responsibilities;

2. People accused of a crime are assured a proper defence;

3. Vulnerable and disadvantaged people are protected so they are not denied access to justice because of their inability to pay for it.

Yet the government's aim is to provide advice and representation to clients in a way that (see how the language has changed):-

Is proportionate to the issues at stake

Helps to ensure timely and effective procedures and trials, thereby supporting the objectives of the criminal justice system

Achieves maximum value for money

Achieves control over spending.

Make no mistake, Lord Carter wants to cut legal aid to the bone and marketise advice. It is all about cost cutting at the end of the day. People who desperately need access to legal advice in any area of law will have severe problems as it won’t be about equal entitlement to justice instead it will who can afford it. It will be rough justice for the poor under the pretext of “consumer choice” and “value for money”.

Get your MP to attend the Adjournment debate. And I hope John McDonnell can make it.....

For more information see Access to Justice Alliance