Legal Aid

Permira backs Law For All

PUBLISHED July 16, 2007

Permira, the private equity firm, is to invest up to ?500,000 in tackling legal advice ?deserts? that lawyers claim will multiply under controversial legal aid system reforms.

The company is backing a plan by Law For All, a west London-based non-profit organisation, to work with Citizens Advice bureaux in Cambridgeshire to ensure poor people can access advice on debt, housing, family law and social security.

The partnership creates an intriguing dynamic in which a high-profile company from an industry much criticised for its alleged ruthlessness is helping fund social services in a field where City lawyers and others say the government?s efforts are failing.

Ian Sellars, a Permira partner and lawyer, said Law For All?s work fitted well in Permira?s wider strategy of supporting enterprises that were well-run with clear social goals.

?There are so many legal advice deserts throughout the UK,? he said. ?What Law For All want to do is expand their services to cover those deserts.?

Permira is providing ?375,000 funding to Law For All over two years as part of a programme supervised by Community Action Network, a non-governmental organisation. The investment builds on ?140,000 already provided by Permira to Law For All under an initial programme that ended in April.

Ulla Barlow, co-founder and management director of Law for All, said Permira?s involvement ? also including advice and lobbying ? would help to expand an operation that last year processed more than 10,000 cases in four London boroughs, Suffolk and Norfolk.

?We will deal with anyone who has a legal problem,? she said. ?We will help them access other services.?

Law for All?s work highlights a wider debate over both the dearth of lawyers in poor areas and the potential social impact of market-style reforms to the legal aid system, which are due to come into force from October. Lawyers across the profession say the reforms, which include competitive tendering and the end of hourly billing, are likely to force many high street law firms out of legal aid work because it will become uneconomic.

In November, 28 corporate law firms ? including big City names such as Clifford Chance, Herbert Smith and Lovells ? warned that the proposals were a ?real threat to access to justice for some of the most vulnerable people in society?.

While some City firms have kept a lower profile, the ones that have spoken out say they are doing so because of the importance of the principle of access to justice, and because of their growing involvement in seconding their lawyers to work for free at operations such as Law For All.

Campaigners in the City and elsewhere are hoping the arrival of Jack Straw as justice secretary might trigger a rethink of some of the department?s more controversial policies.

The government argues the changes are needed to improve the efficiency of a system in which costs have risen by a third since 1997 and ?7m of business is spread between 400 firms.

But while many lawyers accept the need for reform, they say the government has made a fundamental mistake by imposing tough public sector-style reforms on their private profession.

As Law For All?s Ms Barlow puts it, speaking for the legal profession: ?This terrific crisis we are in could have been avoided.?