Government plans can allow true access to justice for all

Vicki Chapman says that the government plans for a community legal service must be carried out – by refocussing legal aid funding.

The idea of a community legal service first surfaced in Labour's 1995 Access to Justice document.

This survived into a manifesto commitment, with the emphasis on regional plans and partnership between private practice and the voluntary sector. While the detail is still being worked on, a broad outline of the Government's plan is gradually beginning to emerge.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, has made it clear that the community legal service will focus on those areas of law not traditionally undertaken by private practice, such as housing, welfare benefits and immigration law. He has recognised that there is some provision already, with expertise among advice workers and lawyers operating in the not-for-profit sector.

He has also noted that not all private practice lawyers are fat cats, and has praised those who are providing an important service to the community. The idea is very clearly for partnership with a range of providers.

However, many parts of the UK are poorly served, with no legal aid lawyer or advice agency for miles around. There is a need for a greater coherence of provision, through better planning and organisation of providers.

Tackling geographical gaps in access should form a major part of any planning process which is seeking to tackle the problem of unmet need. Investment should be directed at providing start-up funding for new agencies in parts of the country with no or very limited provision.

Legal aid eligibility has dropped to an unacceptably low level. Restoring eligibility must be a priority, at least so that everyone in receipt of family credit or disability working allowance is entitled to legal aid without a contribution which, in many cases, they simply cannot afford.

Another key issue is the lack of funds for representation before tribunals, where disputes over welfare benefit, immigration and employment matters are resolved. For low-income households, disputes surrounding these matters are of enormous importance. The law is complex and the other side, either the state or employer, is invariably represented. Providing help in appropriate cases can make all the difference.

We are told there is no new money. Resources will only come from the re-focusing of legal aid. Working within the constraints of a limited budget, the priority has to be addressing the imbalance in access to legal services in the areas which disproportionately affect the lives of low-income people who, at the moment, get least from our justice system.