Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Legal aid changes will hit East Cornwall families

Cornwall Citizens Advice Bureau have put out a press release about changes to the legal aid contract in the East of Cornwall which will have a significant impact on many of the poorest families in our area. CAB estimates that more than 900 local families need family legal aid services each year in our area.

The Cornwall CAB press release says:

We understand the Legal Services Commission has just announced the award of the new contract for Family Legal Aid to one firm in the East of the county. This means that for the next three years, the duration of the contract, clients will have no choice when seeking advice and, should the other party already have retained the services of that firm, will be forced because of conflict of interest, to obtain advice from outside the area. For many this will impose great hardship and for many more may be a near impossibility. The winning firm has offices in Liskeard and Launceston and so Family Legal Aid solicitors will not be available in East Cornwall's largest towns - Bodmin, Saltash and Bude.
Because only one firm will be able to carry out work inevitably there will be problems of conflict of interest. The firm will be unable to take on all cases it has been allocated and this will result in large numbers of people unrepresented.

The impact appears to be that where two sides of a dispute need legal aid, only one will be able to be served by the local firm to avoid conflicts of interest. And if you don't live in Liskeard or Launceston then you will have to travel up to 25 miles to even see a legal aid solicitor. The firm awarded the contract will not even be allowed to set up new offices closer to their clients.

At present in North Cornwall there are 4 firms of solicitors in Bodmin, 3 in Launceston and 3 in Bude who can do Family Legal Aid work. Without them there will be an increase in the workload of the CAB and demands on them for advice which they are neither funded nor qualified to provide.

The CAB explains that in even the simplest cases there can be three parties needing representation and often two of these will qualify for legal aid. With only one company allowed to take on local business, one of these parties will have to travel to Plymouth, St Austell or Okehampton to get advice.

Throughout Cornwall the impact of this change will be to reduce the availability of Family Legal Aided advice. Where there are currently 31 firms of solicitors spread across the county there will in future be only 5 - one in the East and five (including the Eastern firm) in the West. The proposal is that this contract should last for three years.

I have no doubt that it will be the poorest, most abused and least able who will suffer most, but all families in the East will suffer because of this change. The firm chosen to get the contract is large and very reputable and they will do a good job for their clients. But if they can only represent half the people who need assistance, what happens to all the rest?

Some time ago the Legal Services Commission promised 'rural proofing' to guard against just these problems. It would appear that this promise has vanished.

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