Society rejects funding proposal

The Law Society has spoken out against a bill proposed by left-wing Labour MPs to fund a “nationalised” legal service.

MPs Austin Mitchell and Tony Benn are campaigning for a “National Legal Service” with a set of radical proposals indicating a potential Labour split over its legal policy.

The proposals include a complete scrapping of legal aid and use of its budget to create a public defender system.

Labour's policy, framed in Paul Boateng MP's policy document Access to Justice, was ratified by delegates at the party's Brighton conference.

“Paul's policy is too cautious. this is far more radical,” Mitchell said.

“Neither party will produce extra funding for legal aid to widen access to justice. The only way round this is to shake up the legal service.”

The plan is for two new publicly-funded structures, backed by a statutory right to legal services.

In a complete departure from Labour's official policy, the MPs propose a US-style public defender service for criminal matters and a national framework of law centres which would use employed lawyers. Private sector lawyers would have to compete with these structures.

Reforms of the legal profession would aim to break down “restrictive practices and obsolete distinctions of the two professions so that they can price themselves into service,” said Mitchell.

A Legal Services Commission is proposed to oversee the reforms.

“Use the huge sums now paid out in legal aid…and we can have legal service for all,” said Mitchell.

But Russell Wallman, Law Society head of professional policy, said there would be little support for what is akin to “old-style nationalisation”.

Wallman added that the US experience of public defender systems, with its “grossly overworked and underpaid” lawyers, would create a “monopoly State legal service which would reduce quality and access to legal services”.

Wealthy defendants like OJ Simpson would enjoy superior private defence, he warned.

Boateng was unavailable for comment.