Flagship govt legal service still under wraps

Chris Fogarty wonders whether the Government's plan for a Community Legal Service will prove to be as revolutionary as many hope.

By any measure it is a bold statement.

'The Community Legal Service (CLS) can do for the law what the NHS did for national health when it started 50 years ago,' Law Centres' Federation chair Mahmud Quayum told a gathering of colleagues and government officials at Camden Law Centre last month.

Quayum is jubilant that the Labour Government has committed itself to a community-based legal service something he and his Law Centre colleagues repeatedly pleaded for from the Conservative regime.

Yet there is a distinct air of caution among England and Wales' 52 Law Centres about what was one of Labour's solid manifesto pledges in the legal arena.

While the Government is committed to the CLS concept there is little real detail about how the idea will actually work in practice.

Even Quayum, who met with senior government officials to discuss the proposal two weeks ago, is still pretty much in the dark.

'It is almost as if Santa has brought us our greatest wish but we cannot yet see what is in the box,' he says.

For the moment at least, the Government's work on developing a CLS is very much happening behind the scenes.

It got lost in the outcry over Lord Irvine's reforms of the legal aid system.

The Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD) has set up a project team led by senior civil servant Melissa Morse with a brief from Lord Irvine to 'identify the ideas which offer the best opportunities to provide services more effectively to a wider group than can be helped by the current system'.

Already around 20 legal and other related organisations have been consulted by the project team on their ideas as to how a CLS could work.

But the team has yet to be given a deadline when to report back to the Government.

This will leave many with the distinct impression that the Government is no real hurry to introduce a CLS, if ever.

It may be a mistaken one. Lord Irvine, who can hardly be called indecisive, has been making references to the CLS concept in speeches and interviews as far back as 1995.

Clearly he knows what he wants. He told last year's Solicitors' Annual Conference in Cardiff that the CLS would co-ordinate grass-roots advice services such as mediation bodies, Citizens' Advice Bureaux and Law Centres under one 'coherent scheme'.

'The principal aim of a CLS will be to help people decide if their problem is really a legal one and, if not, point them in the right direction for appropriate help,' he said.

Morse adds that the CLS will give people involved in disputes and faced with the possibility of taking various courses of action the information they need to help them to make the 'best choice'.

A primary aim, she says, will be to encourage them to seek other forms of dispute resolution than the courts.

But she stresses that the CLS could also end up advising some people who had not considered legal action to go to court, thereby providing new work for solicitors.

The project team is developing a range of 'models' for a CLS scheme including one involving salaried lawyers.

However the LCD is understood to be opposed to a suggestion by Labour MP Austin Mitchell that the CLS should in fact be a fully nationalised legal service in much the same way as the NHS.

Although it is still too early to say how the changes will affect the legal profession, some sectors are more comfortable with the idea than others.

The Bar Council for one is enchanted by the idea. This year it is piloting direct access schemes that will allow staff in advice agencies and CABx to go straight to barristers for advice.

A well funded, expanded CLS, which regularly seeks advice from counsel could prove a boon for young barristers struggling to make a living.

The Non-practising Bar Association is already planning to set up law centre 'chambers' to capitalise on the expected extra Government funding.

Some solicitors are more circumspect, especially those from high street practices who will be waiting to see whether the CLS will cut the ground from under their feet.

'At first blush it does seem that it is something that might take work away from sole practitioners,' ventures Sole Practitioners Group chairman Tim Readman.

Meanwhile, the Law Centres' Federation is eagerly eyeing up the expected savings Lord Irvine's legal aid reforms will produce, in the hope that some of the money will be redirected to its cash-strapped members as part of the CLS scheme.

And while the Government apparently does not share Mahmud Quayum's vision of a 'legal NHS', it knows the CLS is an eye-catching initiative that could find favour with a public that is hostile towards lawyers and mistrusting of the legal system.

As with every new initiative, there will be winners and losers. But if a few small high street firms do close because of a CLS opening up next door, the Government will consider it an electoral price worth paying.