'We are united by a sense of outrage'

AN August calm has descended on the legal aid debate, putting on hold what promises to become the burning issue of the autumn months.

However, behind the scenes, a nationwide campaign to defeat the Lord Chancellor's plan for wholesale reform of legal aid is taking shape.

Organisations concerned about the White Paper on legal aid are using the summer months to digest its implications and prepare for the next parliamentary session. And one group in particular faces a lot of soul searching.

The National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux (Nacab) is in the process of reviewing its policy of co-operating with the Government over the reforms in the light of the White Paper.

Nacab was bitterly disappointed that the paper dropped earlier plans to extend legal aid to tribunals.

Sources say Nacab is being wooed by the Lord Chancellor's Department and that its relations with the Legal Aid Board are frosty.

A spokeswoman for Nacab said: “We are an independent charitable organisation and as such have certain principles which have to be abided by, whatever the LCD and LAB want us to do.”

But, she added, the organisation is hoping to resolve these problems by September.

Extending legal aid funding to the advice sector is a key part of government plans and it will be keen not to lose what support it has from this sector.

Meanwhile, legal groups such as the Legal Aid Practitioner's Group (LAPG), the Legal Action Group (LAG) and the Law Society stress that although things seem quiet there is a lot of dialogue between themselves and with the consumer and advice sector.

Vicki Chapman, policy officer at LAG, commented: “Everyone is united by a strong sense of outrage over the effect the White Paper will have on clients.”

But calls for a single steering committee, made up of representatives from interested organisations, have been met with caution.

Bill Montague, LAPG co-chair, said: “There is already effective representation from a large number of groups. The question is whether it would be helpful to bring them under one umbrella.

“There are lots of different bodies involved, from specialist groups to large representative organisations, all with different structures and rules, and I am not convinced that creating a single body would be the right approach.”

The campaign against the reforms will focus on two events – a conference on legal aid and the Queen's Speech in October.

The conference, 'Legal aid – influencing the agenda', is being organised by the Law Society and LAPG and will be held in Cardiff on 19 September. Members from both organisations, as well as Paul Boateng, Labour legal affairs spokesman, and Gary Streeter, parliamentary secretary for the Lord Chancellor's Department, are expected to speak, as are representatives from the National Consumer Council.

The Law Society is also working on an activist pack and it has already received 3,000 requests from interested members. The pack, expected to be available in September, will include details on how to lobby local MPs and the Press.

For the time being, opponents of the reforms are hoping they can make enough noise to convince the Government that, despite the media's obsession with legal aid abuse, it would be too risky to include legal aid reform in the Queen's Speech.