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The Community Legal Service (CLS), which from 1 April 2000 replaced the old civil scheme of legal aid, has been criticised following an independent review on behalf of the Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA).
In a report following the review, the CLS has been identified as lacking clarity and transparency both internally and externally. Public confusion regarding the CLS is made more acute by the fact that the organisation is more a concept than a physical organisation.
Independent company Matrix Research and Consultancy concluded a review in April, looking specifically at how the CLS has impacted on the accessibility of legal services, the quality of the provision and the ways in which policy has affected the targeting of resources to achieve agreed outcomes within the community.
The DCA sought responses from interested groups in respect of the range of findings and recommendations made in the report. National charity Legal Action Group (LAG) responded by arguing that the CLS needed an active, visible presence in all parts of the UK.
Nony Ardill, policy director at LAG, said: “The CLS is simply a repackage of legal aid and an exercise in branding, and is actually provided by agencies that don’t receive legal aid. The whole thing has become a bit of a mess, resulting in public confusion.”
Alongside a full range of recommendations relating to structural, organisational and managerial changes, LAG looked specifically at CLS’s name, arguing that it caused confusion and added to public uncertainty over its role.
LAG pointed out that the word ‘community’ suggested that the CLS has a strong local presence. This is not the case, as it has no physical base in communities. The ‘legal’ element was pinpointed as being downplayed by the Government, which is actually in favour of promoting a role delivering first-stage advice and guidance. Lastly, the word ‘service’ was argued to be a misnomer, as the public finds it difficult to recognise exactly what service the CLS actually provides.
Responding to LAG’s criticisms, LSC, the body responsible for the development and administration of the CLS, said it believed the criticisms were unjustified. The LSC rejected the idea that the CLS had no strong local presence. It pointed to CLS partnerships, where the CLS brings together legal and advice services organisations such as Citizens Advice Bureax and private practice solicitors, as having achieved excellent results. The LSC also stated that first-stage advice is not necessarily not legal in nature, and was a good way of achieving a positive outcome for the client. Lastly, the LSC said that more than one million people received advice last year through CLS networks, indicating that the public was aware of the service.
The LSC is currently in discussion with the DCA concerning the Matrix report.