Law Soc hosts crisis meeting over ethnic minority legal aid

Ethnic minority solicitors will call on the Government this week to change its legal aid reform timetable or risk depriving black and Asian communities in the UK of legal representation.

The call will be made at a crisis meeting of more than 100 ethnic minority solicitors at Law Society headquarters.

The meeting was organised by Maria Fernandes, the Law Society council member for ethnic minority solicitors. It is taking place on Monday against a background of increasing tension between the Law Society and the Legal Aid Board (LAB) over the reforms.

Fernandes fears many ethnic minority lawyers will miss the December deadline to apply for a legal aid franchise. Firms must have one to apply for a contract to offer green form advice from January 2000.

An unusually high proportion of black and Asian solicitors are sole practitioners – 14 per cent compared with 7 per cent for the whole profession – and it is cash-strapped sole practitioners who are finding it most difficult to apply for franchises.

Fernandes, who is seeking a meeting with the Lord Chancellor's Department to discuss the problem, fears many ethnic minority solicitors will miss the deadline, leaving communities without representation.

“I have been told that in Southall there is only one firm with a legal aid franchise,” she said.

The meeting will advise on applying for a franchise, but it will also be a platform from which to lobby the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, to allow firms more time to apply for a franchise.

However, last week, LAB chief executive Steve Orchard blamed the Law Society for the problem.

He claimed that the Law Society had started advising solicitors to apply for a franchise only a month ago, a move he described as “regrettable” as franchising was launched in October 1993.

But Karen Mackay, head of legal aid policy at the Law Society, said solicitors were asking for a few months' grace only.

“We don't see why the LAB is being so obdurate when it says it wants to work in partnership,” she said.