" Legal aid is (almost) dead What can lawyers do to help people access justice now? Patrick Torsney guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 1 May 2012 14.38 BST Article history
Hackney Law Centre staff. Photograph: Hackney Law Centre
After a long fight and a knife-edge vote in the Lords last week, the Queen gave her assent today to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (Laspo). A significant number of people will no longer have access to professional help with legal problems.
While the government frequently points to the not-for-profit (NfP) advice sector - notably Citizens Advice Bureaux and law centres - as the safety net for these people, these organisations are suffering their own crises. Any notion that they can fully serve the interests of those legally disenfranchised by Laspo is wishful thinking at best.
The launch of alternative business structures has been mooted as a way of filling the gap, too, with proponents saying it will enable legal services to be delivered in innovative ways. But relying on the combined impact of Laspo and ABS is an explosive and haphazard approach to reforming the legal landscape. The deregulation of legal services, like the privatisation of public services, will not automatically improve them. In fact, the contrary may be true.
Some not for profit organisations have set up social enterprises and started to introduce small charges for services as a way of surviving and bolstering free advice provision. But they face outright competition from legal providers who already charge fees and the widespread perception that you consult a solicitor if you can afford one, and a law centre or CAB if you can't.
Some people may try to litigate in person, with all the difficulties that entails. Many more simply won't bother to go to court and will have to suffer the consequences of poor housing, debt, unfair welfare benefits decisions and employers' misconduct without recourse to the courts. So what can lawyers do to help people negotiate this harsh landscape? ................."