The Labour Party will replace the Legal Aid Board with a Community Legal Service staffed by salaried lawyers with rights of audience in the courts, in order to provide representation “at a lower cost to the taxpayer than the existing system”.
This first indication of a move towards a US-style public defender system is revealed in Labour's recently published 'Access to justice' policy paper.
However, there is no further explanation as to whether these lawyers would act in civil or criminal proceedings, or how they would be appointed.
Russell Wallman, Law Society head of professional policy, says the society would have no objection to the operation of pilot schemes to see how such a salaried service could compare with existing provision.
“One of the key issues is to maintain choice for the public, [however] we think it would be more appropriate for it to be available for the civil side.”
Advance copies of the policy paper have been sent to The Lawyer, the Law Society and the Bar Council.
In it, Labour describes its Community Legal Service as being co-ordinated by the ex- Legal Aid Board offices and responsible for “disbursing the entire legal aid budget on a regional basis”.
In addition, each local board will be able to “bid for earmarked funds from within the existing legal aid budget to establish innovative schemes to meet local needs”.
Within their localised budgets, area offices' core functions will include working alongside local authorities to draft strategies for meeting local demand for advice and representation.
They will also “ensure access” to representation by local lawyers and advice agencies, and promote use of alternative dispute resolution (ADR).
However, Labour's fondness for ADR is a cause for concern for the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux, which says: “We are very worried by the assumption…that ADR is necessarily a less expensive way of resolving a dispute. ADR should not be seen as a simple cheap alternative to the court, or an alternative system of justice. We are concerned that there has been a failure to think through what is being proposed.”