The UK government must make it easier for law firms to evolve and provide more innovative methods of service delivery, the Law Society has said. The body, which represents solicitors across the UK, announced its position following a Ministry of Justice statement on proposals to slash the UK’s legal-aid bill. While the Law Society recognises that legal aid should be funding of last resort, it is concerned that the government’s measures will hinder access to justice.
The UK Coalition government’s proposals – which aim to shave £350m from the £2bn annual cost of legal aid by 2015 – are based on a rethink of areas currently eligible, with exclusions earmarked in order to make the necessary savings. Among the proposed exclusions are lawsuits against public bodies such as health trusts, councils or education authorities; advocacy before tribunals; and proceedings initiated under consumer law. Exemptions from those exclusions will be considered only for cases in which the plaintiff is highlighting i) abuse of power; ii) a significant breach of human rights; or iii) negligence falling below the required standard of care.
‘We have grave concerns about the likely effect,’ said the Law Society. ‘We believe that the government should not take any further steps to reduce financial eligibility for legal aid, nor to remove legal aid from categories of cases. Legal aid clients are some of the most vulnerable, and good legal representation where required is essential if they are to obtain justice.’
With that in mind, the Law Society wants the government to look at ways of ‘giving practitioners greater autonomy to deliver services and come up with innovative means of delivery’. This, it says, will make the process of finding representation easier and more affordable. The organisation highlights three business models as successful recent innovations:
• The ‘virtual’ firm, operating almost wholly from a central server with a computerised case-management system, a secure intranet, and an online forum to promote effective communication between its members;
• The ‘shared services’ model, in which a single management company provides back-office services for a number of firms, allowing them to reduce their overheads;
• A shared model in which several firms practice under the banner of one firm that provides back-office services – plus offerings such as insurance, or marketing and tendering advice – while maintaining independence and service quality across each firm in the group.
The Law Society argues that broader liberalisation of the legal services market could produce further innovations that would follow the above examples in providing accessible help to the general public. It also says that the Legal Services Commission, which operates the UK’s legal aid scheme, should ‘explore greater delegation to solicitors of the funding and management of legal aid through variations on [these] models’, in order to ensure that help gets to those who most need it.
‘Even during the so-called “good times”, legal aid has been subject to substantial government cuts,’ said Law Society president Linda Lee. ‘The level of legal aid funding has been frozen since 2005 – despite significant increases in the volume of work.’
She added: ‘Cutting the legal aid system, without ensuring that there are other means in place for people to get the expert help they need, is short sighted and a false economy, which is likely to end up costing the State more in the long term.’
The Law Society argues that the UK government must give law firms more scope to adapt their business models in order to provide more affordable assistance