LSC funding changes are merely window dressing

LSC funding changes are merely window dressingMore than 3,000 lawyers raised more than £300,000 for the London Legal Support Trust on 19 May to support legal advice charities in London and the South East.

The trust was set up in 2003 to act as a ‘league of friends of legal advice’, providing support for voluntary sector legal advice charities such as Law Centres, which provide welfare advice for the ­disadvantaged.

This year the trust was forced to provide stopgap funding for agencies that have been pushed close to closure by over-hasty and ill-thought-out changes in their Legal Services Commission (LSC) funding.

For some years high street legal aid practices have worked on a cost-per-case system. In social welfare law that is an unsuitable funding system. It pushes lawyers into working for people whose cases will be short, taking resources away from the more difficult cases.

As an example, firms get paid the same for advising on rights in an assured
shorthold tenancy as they do for conducting a homelessness review. If they maximise easy cases and minimise the hard ones within some set arameters, they can ­maximise income on the contract.

This has worked so far, where cases can be passed to the specialist voluntary ­sector, which is happy to deal with ­‘difficult clients’ with difficult cases. Until October 2007, most voluntary agencies were paid by the hour. Now they have also been moved to payment-per-case and hit with case times that are too short for the work. Also, their payment in advance has been changed to payment in arrears, ­turning their cash into work in progress almost overnight. There is a buffer period for that change, but as it comes to an end the trust is receiving ­desperate ­applications from the biggest and best-known agencies, which are facing service cuts and even closure.

Why on earth the LSC did not pilot these changes is beyond comprehension. It could have – and still should – run a pilot in one area and then a pilot with all agencies, but it has rushed ahead with the changes in a manner that is reckless, if not malign.

In a system where the budget is capped, the LSC and the Government have two choices: they can try to provide some help for the highest number of people or try to achieve outcomes that help those most in need. It seems that the latter course was just too difficult and they have gone for the easy route – high numbers receive what they call ‘acts of assistance’ and less in-depth casework.

This is social welfare law for the most disadvantaged. Money spent on advice for people who cannot act on that advice and which therefore achieves no benefit is hardly value for money. It is exactly like cutting the costs of medicine by reducing a course of 10 penicillin tablets to a course of five. No one gets cured, but more people are ‘helped’.

The changes in the last few years have affected services adversely throughout the system. Good private practice lawyers have had to learn to cheat the system to provide a decent service. Now the voluntary sector will be required to do the same to survive. Some will succeed. Already Citizens Advice Bureaus are logging cases under ‘legal help’ that they would ­previously have done quickly by telephone.

The LSC changes are a brutal dumbing down of a good system. This was ­highlighted in an advert from one of the ‘new breed’ of suppliers recruiting after it had won an LSC telephone advice contract. Advice workers were offered £17,000 a year because the job would “suit graduates or undergraduates – no experience necessary, full training will be given”.

When exactly did access to justice become access to a bit of advice from
an undergraduate with a few weeks’ training?