Friday, 10 December 2010

The end of the line for CLAS

One of the casualties of the government’s proposals on legal aid published last month will be the policy of establishing jointly funded advice services with local government. The last government, in conjunction with the Legal Services Commission (LSC), had aimed to establish dozens of such services, but since April 2007 only nine have got off the ground. Now called community legal advice services (CLAS), the recently opened one in Manchester has caused huge controversy as the two Law Centres in the city lost out to a bid led by the local Citizens Advice Bureau. As reported in previous blogs these Law Centres are now under threat of closure.

LAG has always been sceptical about the benefits of the CLAS policy in areas such as Manchester, which already had well established not-for-profit sector services and solicitors firms. The policy always looked like a case of change for change's sake with little to gain for the public. With the publication of the green paper on legal aid, the CLAS initiative now resembles the rearrangement of the deck chairs on the civil legal aid Titanic.

Large cuts in the scope of legal aid are planned to be introduced in October 2012. As a result, LAG understands that the government intends to pull the plug on those CLAS which have already been established. LAG believes those such as Leicester and Gateshead which have contracts due to run out before October 2012 should at least have their contracts extended to ensure they are in line with the rest of the country if the planned cuts in scope go ahead. Other CLAS, such as Manchester, which have contracts due to end after October 2012 present a different problem.

The government might choose to give notice to those CLAS with contracts set to end after the scope changes. This would lead to much bitterness among the local councils which entered the contracts with the LSC and government in good faith. The alternative would be to let the contracts run to their end date, which in the case of Manchester would be a full year after the planned withdrawal of legal aid for benefits, employment and other areas of civil law. Not much help to the Law Centres forced to close, but at least the residents of Manchester could console themselves with the thought, for a short while at least, that they would be receiving legal aid services which no-one else in the country was entitled to!

Image: South Manchester Law Centre

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