With an increasing number of people joining job queues and getting their houses repossessed, the demand for free social welfare legal advice has never been greater.
So it is reassuring to know that donations from the 5th London Legal Sponsored walk, which raises money for the capital’s legal advice centres, made £380,000 – the highest-ever since the event was established five years ago – and that’s despite the prevailing economic conditions.
The money will be put in a pot and any legal advice centre run on a voluntary basis will be able to apply for it, says walk organiser and chief executive of the London Legal Support Trust (LLST) Bob Nightingale. The funds are essential in helping these organisations, which provide housing, benefits and discrimination advice to those who cannot afford to pay.
But by the summer, when the majority of the funds have been disbursed, the structural question of the inadequate way in which these centres are currently funded will continue.
There are about a dozen legal advice centres at risk of closure in London and the South East, says Nightingale. The Lewisham centre was forced to close last year as a result of a combination of reduced local authority support and change in Legal Services Commission (LSC) contracting arrangements. These are paid in arrears rather than in advance, so “cashflow goes down the toilet”, says Nightingale.
The LSC, which distributes the Government’s civil and legal aid budget, ruled that agencies should receive fixed fees on a sector basis rather than on an hourly rate. This motivates agencies to go for lots of easier, shorter cases rather than assisting the most needy on more complex issues, argues Nightingale.
“Advice agencies are having to sacrifice more complicated homelessness cases, which can take six hours or so, to do short things to balance the books, such as advice on a shorthold tenancy, which takes on average 45 minutes,” he says.
The other issue is that funding for social welfare advice is lumped together with money for family cases, as well as the particularly costly area of crime. “The Government says the legal aid pot can’t get any bigger, and crime costs so much [which means] social welfare is stuck with a squidgy little bit,” comments Nightingale. “It’s quite obvious that some people are making huge amounts out of crime.”
The Law Society’s legal aid manager Richard Miller agrees that crime costs have encroached on the social welfare law budget because of high-cost fraud and terrorism cases.
However, he argues that this will change. “We think crime is largely under control and will start dropping as a result of new fee schemes and cases moving to fixed penalties and conditional cautioning,” he says.
But Nightingale thinks that the set-up should still be reformed. “I might be naive but it seems you could mend this system,” he says. “Paying by case is here for the foreseeable future – [but still] a lot can be done so that the complicated cases can be paid more than the less complicated cases. At the moment things are all lumped together and they say you’ve got to have an average – it’s just lazy administration.”
Miller agrees that a more sophisticated approach needs to be taken. “We propose fees on a graduated basis – it’s what is used in the magistrates court and works well there,” he says. “The alternative would be to have a separate fee in each area within a particular category and to have additional fees available; for example, if the client has mental health difficulties.”
One solution would be to ringfence funding for social welfare law, but the LLST would be loath to do that if it would mean a cap being imposed on finance for that sector. It would prefer to have more of a balance in the money allocated to crime versus social welfare.
The Government says that community legal advice centres (CLACs) will fill the gap, with all LSC and local authority money going into the same pool. But Nightingale argues that there are perfectly good specialised agencies that should be supported before going down the generic route.
“The CLAC system would be quite a good system to introduce where there aren’t existing services. We haven’t got an embargo on CLACs, if they include voluntary sector agencies we will fund them. We don’t play that kind of politics with our money,” he adds.