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Ministers want law students to fill void left by cuts to legal aid

‘Community legal companions’ set to become substitute lawyers as legal aid is slashed

By Andrea Perry and Alex Varley-Winter | 11 December 2012

“Many will go without legal advice and representation, and will be forced to navigate the justice system alone” – Bar Council spokesman

Ministers are planning to use law students to help fill the gap left by cuts to legal aid in England and Wales.

The idea is for the rookie briefs, called ‘community legal companions’ (CLCs), to advise people preparing to appear in court without a lawyer.

The CLCs will be supporting everyone from divorcing couples and parents fighting for custody of a child through to people suing for medical negligence.

The Bar Council, which represents all barristers in England and Wales, warned that the scheme “is not a solution.”

Dominic Grieve, attorney general, is on record as warning: “Legal aid cannot escape scrutiny at a time when we have a serious economic crisis.”

Andy Slaughter, Labour MP and shadow justice minister, told Exaro: “I have absolutely no problem with, not only maintaining, but expanding ‘pro bono’ work.”

“However, students are, by definition, people starting out. They are not necessarily going to be able to take on difficult and complex cases.”

“It is a smokescreen to cover swingeing cuts in legal aid. They have removed legal aid entirely from any social-welfare sectors, as well as family-law areas. And it is just not conceivable that ‘pro bono’ could cover more than a tiny fraction of their work.”

Seema Malhotra, Labour MP and member of the House of Commons justice committee, said: “Because of this government’s cuts to legal aid, not only is access to justice for some of the vulnerable people in society much more difficult, but the quality of that legal support is also under threat. It is wrong that proper qualified legal advice should only be available to those who can afford it.”

The government is planning to cut £350 million a year of legal aid’s annual £2.1 billion budget by 2015. Its programme of cuts is due to begin in April, and will remove support for most cases relating to housing, welfare, medical negligence, employment, debt and immigration.

A surge of litigants-in-person is expected. But as free legal help available to people is slashed, the idea is for CLCs to become an alternative.

A pilot scheme has already been set up at Keele university’s school of law to assist people who are not entitled to legal aid. According to the university, “around a dozen” law students have taken up part-time voluntary roles as CLCs.

The scheme is expected to be rolled out nationwide.

The university says that the scheme “will explore a new way to deliver legal assistance for self-represented litigants.”

It is partnering with several bodies such as the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB). The students will be trained and supervised by “professional partners”.

People needing legal advice will be referred through organisations such as CAB, police and councils. Solicitors’ firms could also make referrals if they find that potential clients do not qualify for legal aid.

The CLCs will not be able to represent clients in court and will instead offer practical assistance by helping people fill in forms, sort through paperwork, take notes at hearings, and help them understand legislation and legal options available.

Dr Andrew Francis, head of law at Keele university, said: “The CLC scheme responds to the widening gaps in public funded services in the courts in the wake of changes to the system following the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. The launch could not be more timely.”

Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, president of the Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, endorsed the pilot scheme by saying: “The cuts to legal aid are sadly inevitable, but the time for reflection on those cuts has passed and we must now look at how to ensure access to justice is facilitated for those who need it.”

However, a spokesman for the Bar Council told Exaro: “This is not a solution. The Bar will do what it can to support and advise litigants, but many will go without legal advice and representation, and will be forced to navigate the justice system alone.”

The comments come after warnings about the government’s planned cuts to legal aid.

Michael Todd, chairman of the Bar Council, warned last month that litigants-in-person will become “the rule rather than the exception”.

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