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The Legal Aid Board has unveiled plans for creating a network of regional legal services committees throughout England and Wales.
The early establishment of regional committees was envisaged by the recent White Paper on legal aid and follows a successful pilot of the North Western Legal Services Committee.
The board is currently finalising details of committee structure, members and geographical areas. These are expected to be closely modelled on the piloted NWLSC, which will cease to exist in October.
Regional legal services committees will advise the board on local priorities for legal services and develop strategic plans for the provision of legal aid. They will monitor contracts and ensure that appropriate levels of provision are available.
But responsibility for awarding legal aid contracts will remain with the board's area offices. NWLSC secretary Carolyn Schofield said: "It is quite clear that the committees will not be deciding to whom funding is given."
The first task of the committees will be to organise a public consultation process on areas of need. They are also expected to be instrumental in extending pilot schemes such as the current project to block-fund legal centres.
Committees will be chaired by members of the Legal Aid Board and there will be four other members representing solicitors, local authorities, the advice sector and consumers.
The board expects to advertise key executive posts soon and to have members appointed as chair by early 1997.
The Law Society welcomed the creation of the new committees. Russell Wallman, head of professional policy at the Law Society, said: "The North Western Committee has been highly successful at identifying gaps in the provision of legal services and encouraging them to be filled. It has been invaluable."
The National Consumer Council also welcomed the committees as "an excellent idea" but said it was vital that debate and dialogue on the issue was made public at every stage of the legal aid process.