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Community Legal Service Briefing No 25


In 1997 the Labour Party Manifesto contained a commitment to improve access to justice for disadvantaged people by introducing a Community Legal Service (CLS). Initial Scottish proposals were widely criticised and the issue was neglected until recently. Meanwhile, the Community Legal Service has progressed in England and Wales with regional funding committees awarding contracts or franchises to private, public or voluntary organisations that bid for funds to tackle unmet legal need.

Current Provision:

Existing services are a dangerous mix between examples of best and worst possible practice with some areas isolated from any form of service provision. Civil legal aid rules mean that only the very rich and the very poor have effective access to the legal profession. People with income just above benefits are effectively excluded from civil legal aid. Unlike

Criminal legal aid, spending on civil legal aid has been in free fall for many years as the stringent restrictions block the majority of would-be claimants.

In the public and voluntary sector there is no statutory duty to provide welfare law services. Aside from income maximisation, services on employment immigration and discrimination issues are woefully inadequate.

Recent Developments:

In September 2000 the non-profit advice providers came together and published a manifesto for the Community Legal Service. The Scottish Executive's response was to set up a working group with a broad range of representatives from public, private and voluntary sectors

Findings of the Working Group:

It is vital to analyse patterns of demand for services to ensure that new services are designed to meet unmet legal need.

There should be a dedicated national budget for information provision including a directory of general and specialist providers.

There should be a co-ordinating body, although it would sit alongside existing providers and not emerge as a replacement provider.

Organisations should commit to participate in an effective referral system in which referrals are actively managed rather than shunted to another provider.

Quality standards should be agreed and rigorously enforced. This would cover defined adviser competence, service access, monitoring and review and remedial action as required.

Specialist second-tier organisations would promote training and casework in areas of specific need such as employment, housing and discrimination.

Services should be free at the point of access although contributions may still be required for some legal services.

Further consideration should be given to the funding method whether it is contracts, franchises etc. In any event, measures should be taken to ensure that CLS funding is additional and does not displace existing funding sources.

The key recommendation relates to the development phase which is now underway. Research projects have been identified and there are pilot projects in Edinburgh, Glasgow, West Lothian and the Highlands and Islands. Once this phase is evaluated, the CLS will begin to emerge in its final form in 18 months time.

Discussion Points for Unison Members:

Unison is in a distinctive position in relation to the emerging CLS. Obviously many members will be service users at the local lawyer, law centre or CAB. As a union, Unison represents many members in advice work in the public and voluntary sectors. Finally, Unison is probably the largest non-profit provider of advice and information in Scotland. It is disappointing that the discussions so far have not included a trade union perspective. However, the Unison Scotland Justice Policy Pool has made contact with the Scottish Executive and would welcome contributions from staff and members as policy is developed in this area.

Should Legal Aid be used to fund welfare rights and similar services?

Should local authorities have a statutory duty to provide welfare rights advice?

What should be the relationship between public, private and voluntary sector providers?



February 2002


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