Thursday 02 August 2012 by Catherine Baksi
A national scheme to use interest on lawyers' trust accounts (IOLTA) could help fund access to justice in the wake of the impending legal aid cuts, the director of the Law Centres Federation, Julie Bishop, has suggested.
Bishop has resurrected the debate on whether client money, held by firms, could be pooled, with the increased interest on the combined resources being used to fund law centers and other advice services.
With interest rates so low, Bishop said a national scheme would be needed in order to make it worthwhile, but accepted that even at its most effective, it would be a 'drop in the ocean'.
If such a scheme were to be voluntary, she said it would need the support of the Law Society to recommend it to its members.
Bishop suggested that law firms that already run local IOLTA schemes could opt out of any national project so they can continue to focus on issues in their own areas: 'The beauty of IOLTA is that it is an easy way to increase access to justice with no cost to the taxpayer, lawyers or clients. The sums raised are relatively small to a large city firm but are very significant to the recipient.
She added that an IOLTA scheme is also symbolic: 'It shows that the legal community is united in the fight to protect access to justice. It also shows the government that we're leaving no stone unturned to protect our clients.'
A Law Society spokesman said: 'Redistribution of IOLTA is just one of many ideas emerging from the debate on helping those on low incomes to access justice, all of which will be carefully considered.'
Pro bono manager at magic circle firm Allen & Overy, Helen Rogers, said the firm had run an IOLTA scheme since 2005, raising around £250,000 for the London Legal Support Trust which used the funds to help Law Centres and other advice centres.