By Mike Rowley
State legal aid is a vital lifeline for many people who cannot afford to pay a lawyer, including people with problems with debt, police and this country’s endlessly persecutory immigration authorities. Naturally, therefore, New Labour has decided to “marketise” the legal aid system.
The government set 2 April as the deadline for law firms dealing with socially valuable work to sign a new “commission contract” under which they will receive fixed fees fro each case, no matter the individual circumstances of the client or the complication of the case, instead of being paid by the hour in the normal way. The Legal Services Commission, the government body which administers legal aid, will be able to alter the terms of this contract at short notice. This is the beginning of a planned “marketisation” of legal aid; the government has announced that it plans eventually to introduce “price-competitive tendering” in which legal aid contracts will be sold to the lowest bidder - and thus the one providing the worst service.
As solicitors have pointed out, under the new contract people without money will have access to only a few hours’ work from a lawyer. It is feared that many small law firms and community law centres, conscientiously doing as much work as is necessary on each case, will go bankrupt because they will not be paid for most of their work.
The government says it aims to force law firms to merge to cut costs, which will drive community law centres and the diminishing number of small firms which specialise in areas such as immigration and debt out of business. Larger firms will “cherry-pick” simple cases they can do in the time the government will pay for, and people with more complicated cases will not be able to find a lawyer. Finding an immigration lawyer is hit-and-miss as it is, and under the government’s “new asylum model” asylum seekers will have only a week to do so before they are — perhaps illegally — deported.
To make matters worse, this new funding scheme applies to and applies only to precisely those areas of work most vital to the well-being of the worst-off and most vulnerable working-class people. The “commission contract” covers all legal work concerned with domestic violence, child care proceedings and actions against the police, as well as welfare benefits, housing disrepair and challenges to local authorities over community care. Ole Hansen, a solicitor who refused to sign the new contract, said the dispute meant that in Lambeth, where he practices, 80% of legal aid provision for community care and housing cases, and 100% for welfare benefits would disappear.
Most firms dealing with such work have signed the new contracts rather than cease work altogether, but one in six have refused and have been banned from taking any new legal aid work at all. The government made an attempt to move all legal aid cases being handled under the old terms to firms that had accepted the new contract, but lawyers in these latter firms have agreed effectively to “black” such work. The Law Society (which is a professional body not a union) has filed for a judicial review of the government’s action in the High Court, arguing that the scheme breaches public contracts regulations. Despite this, the government refused even any further time for consultation over their proposals.
Some solicitors have formed a campaigning/defence group to fight the changes. They held a rally and demonstration in Westminster on 19 March.