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Black and Asian lawyers have taken legal action against the Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA) and the Legal Services Commission (LSC) over the legal aid reforms, it was revealed today (25 April).
The Society of Asian lawyers and the Black Solicitors Network, which together represent the black, minority ethnic (BME) legal profession, have commenced Judicial Review proceedings to challenge the Government’s proposed changes to the funding of legal services for crime.
They claim that Lord Carter’s reforms will have the effect of denying or restricting access to justice for many minority communities.
The representative bodies say that they have repeatedly asked the Government to carry out an assessment of the impact of these proposals upon minority communities but the DCA and LSC has failed to carry out such an assessment in “any meaningful way”.
They claim that this failure is in breach of the Government’s duty under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000.
The Carter reforms look to make arrangements for the staged introduction of price competitive tendering as the only source of procurement for Criminal Legal Aid.
The size of the firm tendering for the contract will be of particular relevance under the new system with small firms being much less likely to secure a contract.
It is claimed therefore that BME lawyers, which tend to work for smaller firms, will be disproportionately affected and with minority communities often seeking legal assistance from minority solicitors the access to justice will be diminished for this social group.
Sailesh Mehta, the Chair of the Society of Asian Lawyers said a level playing field for BME lawyers needs to be created in the interests of justice.
“When minority communities feel that their access to justice is being curtailed, this can only have negative consequences for race relations,” said Mehta. “We can see no economic or other justification for these disastrous Government proposals, so are forced to commence legal action.”
Ruth Wayte, Legal Director at the LSC said that the Commission is clear that there is a place for BME lawyers in the future of legal aid.
“We have made and will continue to make every effort to ensure we speak to this group about their concerns,” said Wayte. “We are disappointed that the Black Solicitors Network are determined to litigate. We don’t believe this is in the best interest of clients, who remain our primary concern. We will be responding formally in due course.”