NCC unveils community law plan

THE National Consumer Council (NCC) has put pressure on the government to act on its manifesto commitment to set up a community legal service, by publishing its own blueprint for one.

The NCC launched its six-point plan – “A Community Legal Service: The First Steps”- last week, claiming that its model embraced “the complete range of civil legal problems”.

The blueprint, which was described by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, as “very positive and helpful”, calls for:

trained “intake and referral teams” to advise people on the appropriate source of help;

the setting up of community “dispute resolution centres” which house courts, tribunals, and mediation and arbitration services;

more resources to be given to advice and law centres and new services such as law shops, salaried legal services and public law libraries, telephone helplines, workshops and evening classes;

a database of dispute resolution services to be made accessible in community centres, and information to be made more widely available via videos, cassettes and CD-Rom;

formal co-ordination between local and national services; and

a new funding partnership between the Lord Chancellor's department (LCD) and other government bodies, advised by the regional legal services committees.

The plan emphasises the importance of technology and of forging close relations between central and local government in developing a community legal service.

It suggests that the first step is to pilot dispute resolution centres.

The plan is a response to the government's manifesto pledge to create a community legal service, which stated: “The key to success will be to promote a partnership between the voluntary sector, the legal profession and the Legal Aid Board.”

The NCC claims its blueprint, written by NCC senior policy and development officer Marlene Winfield, would “challenge the state's perverse funding incentives that encourage people to litigate even though there may be better ways to resolve their problems”.

The NCC has asked for comments on its proposals by 29 July.

Law Centre's Federation (LCF) director Jay Sharma welcomed the proposals, saying that “changing the present culture of the adversarial system is a big challenge”.

But he warned there was a danger of a two-tier system of justice developing in which those who could not afford the court system used mediation.

The LCF submitted its own 16-point plan for a community legal service to the LCD last month. It will be calling on the government not to impose further treasury cuts on the civil justice system at a House of Commons reception on 10 June.

Last year Lord Irvine set up a project team headed by a senior LCD official to flesh out the government's manifesto pledge.