Govt must centre on the needy

Law centres must play a central role in government reforms, argues Patrick Lefevre. Patrick Lefevre is a co-ordinator at Brent Community Law Centre in North London.

As I listen to lawyers arguing in defence of the current legal aid scheme, I can find almost nothing good to say about the current civil scheme. The reality is that the public spend on legal services for the poor and powerless remains pathetic.

I would accept conscious rationing of legal services within openly determined cash limits, if that was the price of a legal aid system capable of addressing the needs of the most vulnerable.

But we have always had rationing of legal services. The rationing we have now flows from the commercial decisions of the legal firms the Government depends on to provide publicly funded help. The poor still do not see these firms as a source of help in relation to their concerns.

Neither government nor people have decided that the legal aid scheme should be spending public money on relatively trivial personal injury claims, rather than on helping a single mother on income support whose Down's syndrome child has been wrongfully denied the special education she desperately needs by a council. Instead, that decision has been made by the partners in legal businesses across the country when they decide what services they will offer.

There are some admirable exceptions to the rule but the handful of commercial lawyers specialising in, for example, the highly complex law of special educational needs, and care in the community cannot yet fill a small conference room.

Government cannot successfully re-balance legal aid and make it responsive to public priorities until there is a significant law centre and salaried lawyer sector. As always, the cart is being put before the horse.

Law centres should be part of the solution, but no one is going to buy and actively support adverse change to the present system on the basis of a vague promise of law centre/community legal service tomorrow.

This is particularly so when the debate is clouded by government attempts to reduce public spending on legal services. A government that put law centres at the heart of its strategy would have an answer for critics of its legal reforms.

The central weakness of the current system is that the poor fail to seek help. This is not, for the most part, a means issue. No matter how tight eligibility is made, the poorest remain eligible.

It is to the organisation of legal services, based around private commercial legal businesses, that one must look for the main explanation for current failings.

Conditional fees must increase this focus on private legal businesses. We can go on for another 30 years demanding new money, it is not going to happen.

The system needs a helpline-based diagnostic front end available to all, much as the NHS has, where salaried lawyers, informed by community managers, can distribute work across the system to best effect, ensuring that all those in high priority need get the extended help they need, including access to the strategic legal services that law centres are best known for.