Friday, 30 May 2008

In a fix

Jon Robins, LAG’s director of campaigns, on the impact of fixed fees on mental health work. The cracks are already beginning to show...

Is publicly-funded mental health law heading for a collective breakdown? This is an issue we look at in the forthcoming June issue of Legal Action. That seems to be the view of leading practitioners convinced that, ironically, it is in the area of legal representation for the most vulnerable that Lord Carter’s radical reforms are going to have the most catastrophic impact.

The cracks apparently are already beginning to show. Last month, 11 solicitors’ firms around Bristol wrote to the Legal Services Commission anticipating an ‘impending crisis’ as a direct result of the introduction of fixed fees in January. Disturbingly, the firms reported the ‘first signs of patients being left unrepresented’ as remaining firms were ‘heavily overloaded’. A patient detained under the Mental Health Act, Section 2, was not able to find a lawyer despite 15 telephone calls being made and the hearing had to be delayed to find a lawyer. A tribunal for a patient detained in a regional secure unit was adjourned, again, because there were no lawyers. ‘We would be the first to grieve over the necessity of turning away needy and vulnerable clients,’ they said. ‘This will become the routine unless drastic action is taken to stem the tide of those leaving the work and fund it in such a way that firms are able to recruit replacements.’

Richard Charlton, of the Mental Health Lawyers Association, has predicted that the new regime will ‘rapidly accelerate the departure of experienced practitioners from the field to the point where there will be a complete collapse of representation in some, if not large, parts of the country’. The Legal Services Commission (LSC) dismisses such views predicting, instead, that three-quarters of the 300-odd firms left doing mental health work will be better off. It also dismisses fears of a legal aid ‘exodus’ pointing to a massively oversubscribed bid round that the LSC ran at the end of last year.

But it’s a big risk on the part of Government. Once specialist firms and acknowledged experts leave the field, it's difficult (if not impossible) to replace them. As part of the Law Society deal, the newly formed Civil Consultative Group will review the provision of mental health advice. ‘We are talking about people’s liberty,’ Patrick Reeve, head of civil strategy at the LSC, told LAG. ‘In other areas of work like debt or welfare benefits where we have a fixed budget, it is a question of how we split that budget. In mental health it’s about making sure that everybody that needs access to justice has access.’ Reeve also said that if any changes are to be made they would be made under the new contract in 2010. ‘We have no intention of brushing it under the carpet,’ he adds. Let’s hope not.

No comments: