Election 97: Centres show middle way

The jury is still out on the future of legal aid, but whichever political party holds the reins of power after May 1, it is clear that there must be a major overhaul of the current system.

For the last five years, the cost of legal aid has doubled annually. When the Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay made public his White Paper on legal aid reform last year, it was disclosed that legal aid would cost the UK £100m each year for the next three years.

One of the most urgent issues that will face the next government is what to do about law centres. There are 52 throughout the UK, although there should be around 600 according to the Law Centres Federation chairman Russ de Haney.

Law centres exist to help those who, according to the government, are theoretically wealthy enough to afford to pay for legal advice, but in reality cannot do so, says Camden Law Centre director Mahmud Quayum, who is also deputy-chair of the Law Centres Federation. People with £75 or more of disposable income per week are deemed capable of paying for a lawyer privately.

Law centres provide a free service which ranges from giving advice over the telephone about, for example, tenancy disputes, to providing legal advice and representation for a person should they need attend court or a disputes tribunal.

“We often take on cases for people who would otherwise not be eligible for any legal help at all,” Quayum says. “If someone walks through my door and they only have £80 in disposable income and they need my help I cannot turn them away, but that is what a high-street lawyer would charge them per hour. Law centres are the only organisations that can enforce the rights of those who slip through the criteria.”

Most law centres are funded regionally, partly by council tax contributions, so the areas they serve are limited to those administered by their local authorities. This means that a person with an £80 per week disposable income has no option but to hire a solicitor privately if he or she lives in an area with no law centre.

Quayum says that since eligibility criteria for legal aid changed several years ago, the Legal Aid Board, which is responsible for the administration of legal aid funding from the government, has “significantly under-spent its budget” and the money could be channelled into establishing new law centres. But even that would be a mere drop in the ocean of the money law centres now need from central government.

Roger Smith of the lobbying organisation the Legal Action Group believes extra funding is likely after the election, with both parties likely to “re-prioritise” the legal aid budget and direct some of it to law centres.

“What is on the agenda is a shift of legal advice money to law centres, but the big issue is the extent to which Labour will differ from the Tories,” Smith says. “If Labour is serious about sticking to the financial estimates it inherits, then something will have to be done in the form of a reduction of unit price.”

A reduction could only be achieved by either a Labour or Conservative government if the criteria for legal aid were further restricted. This would be unlikely to provide a real increase in funding for law centres as more people would be thrown into the gap between eligibility for legal aid and the ability to pay lawyers' fees.

Russ de Haney is also sceptical as to whether there is a difference between Labour and the Conservatives on the issue of law centre funding.

“All the Labour Party has said is that it is going to be better for us than the Conservatives,” he says. “We think it should make some commitment. At the moment, all law centres being started up are in Labour council areas.”

Smith says that in order for the justice system to work, the government has to address the issue of central funding. “There are grave dangers associated with regional funding,” Smith says. “How does an area choose between funding duty solicitors and housing repairs?

“There is national eligibility of right on the basis that you have a reasonable case, and not if you have a reasonable case and money.”

Quayum agrees: “What is the point of having rights if they are not enforceable? The people who decide our laws are so far removed from reality that they cannot imagine what it is like to try to survive on a low income.”

Many in power do not even know what a law centre is. At a function at the Camden Law Centre last year, a senior government legal figure bowled up to his hosts and astounded them by asking what exactly a law centre was.

“The government says if someone is on a benefit they will always get free legal help, but this is part of the problem,” Quayum says. “It seems our system only works for the very rich, or the very poor who are eligible for legal aid.”

Prospaects for reform

Conservatives – the only legal aid issue that appears to be of concern to the Conservative Party, according to its election manifesto, is the cost of legal aid. It states: “We will change the structure of legal aid to ensure that it… functions within defined cash limits.” The Conservatives go on to say reform would enable the government to “identify priorities” in the system.

Labour – the opposition's manifesto fails to address legal aid or law centre funding. (The party's media and policy units were unable to comment, advising The Lawyer to buy the manifesto to get the party line.)

Liberal Democrats – according to a source in the party's policy unit, the Lib Dems intend to review all justice and law and order, not just legal aid, after the election. But there is no indication as to which direction the party will move in. Until then “it can be presumed we are in favour of the status quo,” the source said.