Thursday, 7 April 2011

Problems in Portsmouth

Portsmouth Community Legal Advice Centre's (PCLAC) future looks in doubt after Portsmouth City Council and the Legal Services Commission (LSC) decided not to retender or extend the centre’s contracts.

LAG understands that both the council and the LSC had intended to renew the centre’s existing contracts until 2012, but as it has fallen short of its targets for specialist level work they decided not to. PCLAC holds contracts in family, housing, benefits, debt and community care, which LAG understands end this month. The LSC is running a tendering exercise for contracts for debt, housing and welfare benefits to serve Portsmouth and hopes to put in place temporary contracts to cover the work in the meantime.

PCLAC was the second community legal advice centre to get off the ground. It opened its doors in May 2008. The centre was a joint venture between Portsmouth Citizens Advice Bureau and The YOU Trust, a large regional charity which provides care services. It enjoyed a high profile with visits from Lord Bach, while he was legal aid minister and Jack Straw, in his then position of Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary.

The last government believed that CLACs could be established across the country to bring together legal advice services paid for by local government and legal aid. But most local councils were reluctant to enter into agreements to jointly tender services with the LSC as they were afraid this would lead to the closure of, or severe cutbacks in, existing local not for profit advice centres.

The government announced plans in November 2010 to cut legal aid for most of the work covered by the few CLACs which have been established and so it now looks like they will be consigned to history. What frustrates LAG is an essentially good idea of bringing services together to better serve clients, has never caught on because the government and the LSC were not prepared to listen to the concerns from providers about the initiative.

It is to be hoped that Portsmouth City Council will continue to support the Citizens Advice Bureau which has two branches in the city, as this is now the its main provider of advice on debt, benefits and other areas of social welfare law.

Image: Legal Services Commission

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