Friday 08 June 2012 by Catherine Baksi
The Law Society is seeking the backing of big City firms for a high-profile initiative aimed at helping high street practices and their clients meet the challenges posed by legal aid cuts.
One key component is ensuring that people on low incomes are able to access appropriate legal services when the scope cuts in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) are implemented. The Society hopes to secure funding from the philanthropic sector and practical help from City firms to develop a strategic litigation function that will monitor and challenge LASPO's implementation. This will pay particular attention to the operation of the proposed telephone gateway, through which clients will access civil legal aid, and the use of the exceptional cases funding mechanism.
Large numbers of social welfare and immigration cases result from poor decision-making by public bodies. LASPO removes legal aid for most of them and it is hoped the new mechanism will help plug the justice gap.
The Society will seek evidence of errors made by bodies such as local councils and government departments and use it to improve standards and encourage better decision-making. Society vice-president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff did not rule out the possibility of seeking judicial reviews, but hoped that change could be brought about without litigation.
She said: 'These projects will need a lot of research. But some of the big City firms are very interested and they have the resources to put a [significant number] of lawyers to work on them.'
The other strand of the group's work is to help high street firms survive in the wake of both legal aid funding cuts and increased competition from big-brand alternative business structures. Chancery Lane will invite practitioners to share ideas about how firms can successfully adapt. It will set up a group on business networking site LinkedIn to facilitate the discussion.
Scott-Moncrieff said: 'All over the country there will be examples of good practice and firms doing innovative things.' Cutting overheads and identifying new income streams will be at the forefront of this debate, Scott-Moncrieff suggested, as well as the question of structure. 'If a private practice firm converts to community interest company it will be able to apply for grants,' she stressed.
Chancery Lane held an initial strategy meeting last week involving: legal aid lawyers and representatives; pro bono solicitors from City firms; and representatives from the advice sector.