Independent recommendations on 'tacking the advice deficit' created by the civil legal aid reforms today met with lukewarm support and no firm commitments from justice minister Lord Faulks QC.
A fringe event at the Conservative party conference discussed the Low Commission report of January 2014, which was commissioned by the Legal Action Group to develop a strategy for access to advice and legal support on social welfare following the scope reductions imposed by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO).
The report, conducted by cross-bencher Lord (Colin) Low, produced 100 recommendations.
Addressing the event, Lord Low called for a number of manifesto commitments from the Conservatives. These include:
- rolling over the Lottery-funded Advice Services Transition Fund, set up to help not-for-profit providers continue offering advice and support;
- developing a national strategy for legal advice and support in England, and a strategy by the Welsh government in Wales;
- councils drawing up local advice and support plans, and;
- reviewing advice provided by phone and online, and concentrating face-to-face advice on the most vulnerable.
Responding, Lord (Ed) Faulks (pictured) said the government has already committed to review LASPO after three-five years, and to do so earlier would be difficult because of the spike in claims consequent on the act's implementation.
He said either main political party [Conservative or Labour] 'may take into account' the idea of a national strategy. 'One of the strengths of the report is that it did not recommend a return to the status quo,' he added.
On a proposal to boost legal education and financial literacy among consumers, he said: 'What would that contain? I am not sure we want to encourage resort to litigation or a rights culture.'
He added: 'I hope there is more money available when the next government takes power. The Low Commission has carefully identified the issues: the solutions are complex.'
Julie Bishop, director of the Law Centres Network, laid bare the scale of the challenge. In the final year before LASPO, she said, citizens advice bureaux provided 350,000 pieces of legal advice: that number has fallen to 16,000 annually. Three-quarters of law centres survived the scope cull, but now see only a third of the clients dealt with previously.
In a shocking revelation, Bishop said 'more than one' law centre now puts plates of fruit in reception, because angry and anxious people with no income arrive hungry.
Both Faulks and Bishop voiced serious reservations about the use of paid McKenzie friends, which the Legal Services Board cautiously endorses. Faulks is wholly opposed, while Bishop said: 'There are a lot of charlatans. This needs careful consideration before becoming part of the market.'