Labour suggests levy to support legal assistance

SOLICITORS could be asked to make compulsory payments to support pro-bono legal services if proposals to be put forward in a Labour Party consultation document later this year are approved.

Speaking at the recent Law Centres Federation annual conference, Labour's legal affairs spokesman, barrister Paul Boateng, said the party would be committed to a radical examination of service provision, and an incoming government was “entitled to look at the private legal profession for a contribution to resources”.

Following the conference, Boateng said that despite a decision in May by the Law Society's pro bono working party to abandon the idea of compulsory contributions, this proposal has not been ruled out by Labour.

“We need to look at ways in which the private legal profession can make a contribution towards making sure everyone who needs it has access to legal advice and assistance,” said Boateng.

“There are a variety of ways in which one might do that – some form of levy, or a direct money payment from the private legal sector to the public sector.

“I think that we as lawyers, whether we work in the private sector or the public sector, have a duty to make sure that the rule of law is upheld by making sure of equal access to the law for all.”

However, Geoffrey Bindman, senior partner of London firm Bindman & Partners and a member of the Law Society's working party, says the group had opted to call for voluntary payments from the profession rather than making it compulsory.

“The pro bono working party concluded that it would not be appropriate to recommend compulsory financial contributions by solicitors towards pro bono legal services, but they recommended that a trust fund be established to support legal services financed by voluntary contributions from the profession,” says Bindman.

“My personal view, though not shared by other members of the working party, is that compulsory contributions might be appropriate if a voluntary scheme is not sufficiently supported by the profession.”

Law centres are calling for specialist prosecutors to take on race cases as part of a package of measures to highlight the seriousness of such crimes.

The Law Centres Federation (LCF) believes that lack of training is to blame for the judiciary's alleged failure to deal effectively with racially motivated crimes.

A motion passed at the LCF annual general meeting pinpointed the “failure by the CPS to have properly trained prosecutors and a reluctance to undertake prosecutions”.

Debashish Dey, of Tower Hamlets Law Centre, who helped draft the motion, says that assigning specially trained prosecutors to racially motivated cases would help to secure convictions.

A spokesman for the CPS says racial motivation is built into the public interest test for bringing a prosecution, and all other factors being equal, such cases are more likely to be brought to court.