THE LEGAL Aid Board has moved to quell a rebellion by advice agencies over legal aid block contracting, putting down a threatened boycott of the scheme to a "widespread misunderstanding" of the government's reform plans.
The threat was made last week when the Federation of Independent Advice Centres (FIAC) warned that its centres would pull out of block contracting if they were required to collect charges from their clients.
Extending legal aid to advice agencies is a fundamental plank of the Government's recent White Paper on legal aid.
And last month the LAB published its proposals to introduce a block funding system for the sector.
In a bid to head off a confrontation with the advice centres, the LAB has issued a detailed statement to allay fears that the reforms will contradict their basic tenet of free advice for all. It said plans to make members of the public pay a minimum contribution applied to litigation and not advice and assistance.
"There is nothing in the White Paper which would force advice agencies to collect contributions from their clients," it adds. "Even if fixed contributions are introduced for advice and assistance at some point in the future there will remain a free tier."
Earlier, speaking at the launch of a joint statement on legal aid, Steve Johnson, legal adviser to the FIAC, had said a refusal to tender for block contracts was "almost inevitable" if advice agencies were required to collect charges or to turn away clients because they failed to meet a means test.
"There's bound to come a point where we decide that what we are being asked to do is so contrary to our principles that we will have to withdraw."
FIAC is one of 10 signatories to a joint statement condemning the Government's proposals. The others are the Advice Services Alliance, the Child Poverty Action Group, Justice, the Law Centres Federation, the Law Society, the Legal Action Group, Liberty, the Public Law Project and Shelter.
The statement voices unanimous concern that the proposals "will do nothing to improve individuals' access to justice, but will instead deter many ordinary people from pursuing or defending their legal rights".
Law Society president Tony Girling, said the first task was to "avoid hasty and ill-considered legislation". But he also expressed concern that some legal aid proposals would be introduced without primary legislation and without adequate consultation.
This Thursday the Law Society and the Legal Aid Practitioners' Group are holding a joint conference on legal aid in Cardiff. Speakers will include Tony Girling, Gary Streeter, parliamentary secretary at the Lord Chancellor's Department, and his opposition counterpart, Paul Boateng.