"Law centres will continue to fight for their clients and communitiesThursday 03 May 2012 by Julie Bishop
As deliberation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act was nearing conclusion, I thought I saw in the eyes of several work acquaintances the kind of commiserating gaze reserved for terminally ill patients. One even verbalised his concern: ‘So that’s it, then, for law centres?’ Yes, I smiled, that’s it for law centres. Only not quite how you think.
After a year and a half of preoccupation with LASPO in its various guises, first as a green paper, then through the Commons and the Lords and back again - that’s it. We have had a rare opportunity to influence the legislative process, with some success, but it is over. Still, as we warned locally and nationally of the many dangers of LASPO, people have been reminded again of what law centres stand for. Now we can continue using our public profile to make sure people know their legal rights and how to stand up for them, and to voice our clients’ concerns with decision-makers and the public.
The passage of LASPO was also a long goodbye to the old order formalised by the Access to Justice Act 1999. It proved beyond doubt just how averse the current government is to the principle of access to justice - which it repeatedly refused to include in LASPO - and to the means of providing public legal services. This realisation is liberating; it allows law centres to go on challenging the LASPO settlement and to campaign for again broadening the scope of civil legal aid.
That’s also it for legal aid as we knew it. After LASPO, law centres will continue to seek legal aid work, but like all practitioners they will rely on it even less than they already do. To survive, law centres are exploring other ways of working by deepening collaboration among themselves and with other local organisations. They are looking to broaden their engagement with law firms to channel the legal profession’s generous pro bono culture. They are also experimenting with new services and new modes of service delivery, some of which may generate income to support law centres’ free services.
For many of our clients, LASPO really is it. Those whose jobs are compromised by the market forces of the UK’s double-dip recession will not be able to access already scarce employment advice. A year after the riots and with violent crime on the rise, children and young adults fleeing abuse or being excluded from school, will lose an important source of advice and help. Many people will be forced to navigate the benefits system on their own as the goalposts move and recipients are reassessed. For many, benefit cuts will reduce their scant income and put their homes and their ability to care for their families at immediate risk. It is for our clients and communities that law centres fight on.................."