Gerry Steinberg MPIn the House...

Commons Gate

Community Legal Service: the introduction of contracting

Public Accounts Committee 2003

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Mr Tim Burr, Deputy Comptroller and Auditor General, further examined.
Mr Brian Glicksman, Treasury Officer of Accounts, HM Treasury, further examined.
Report By The Comptroller And Auditor General: Community Legal Service: the introduction of contracting

Examination of Witnesses

Sir Hayden Phillips GCB, Permanent Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, and Mr Steve Orchard CBE, Chief Executive, Legal Services Commission, examined.

Mr Steinberg

Mr Steinberg: I found this report very frustrating because it seemed that everybody was losing out: taxpayers, clients and decent solicitors. If you go to the very first paragraph in the report, the last sentence, it says, "The Government's aim for the community legal service team is to encourage easy access to quality assured services that provide information, advice and representation mainly, but not exclusively, to the most disadvantaged." I thought of one case I had very recently. Somebody wanted to see a solicitor in Durham, who was disabled. He had his leg amputated from the knee down. He had a personal injury claim against the local hospital. He goes to his local solicitor to seek advice in the town where the hospital. He is unable to help because he says, "I am not able to deal with this. You will have to go to the nearest solicitor who is able to deal with it, 20 miles away in Middlesbrough." The client does not drive. He has a clear cut claim. He says, "I do not want to go to Middlesbrough. Where else can I go?" The next nearest one is Leeds, which is 70 miles away. How is the aim of the government being achieved for my constituent who came to see me?

Mr Orchard: This was a potential clinical negligence claim?

Mr Steinberg: Yes.

Mr Orchard: Clinical negligence is an area of law that we believe you need real expertise in to be able to cover it effectively. It was not that long ago I was before this Committee on issues around clinical negligence.

Mr Steinberg: I agree with you. On the other hand, how is my constituent getting what the government's aim is regarding services from a solicitor if he has to go to the nearest one 20 miles or the next one which is 70 miles away?

Mr Orchard: I cannot remember the exact details because I have not briefed myself on clinical negligence for this hearing, but we did put in arrangements which would facilitate contact between people some way away, particularly those who are disabled. I cannot remember if it is paying for the solicitor to go the client or for the client to go to the solicitor, but I am happy to give you a note about that. There should be no reason why they should be excluded from the justice system simply because of that 20 mile distance. We can facilitate that.

Mr Steinberg: Explain to me how. Will the solicitor come and see them?

Mr Orchard: That is the point I cannot remember. We pay either for the solicitor to go to the client or for the client to go to the solicitor. I would need to give you a note.

Mr Steinberg: This is one specific case and there are many throughout the country where the aim of the government is not being achieved simply because the number of solicitors is decreasing. Are you giving us guarantees, saying that the system is now better, that people who depend upon legal aid, who are generally the less well off and people on benefits, are getting a better system now than they got beforehand with easier access and superb legal advice?

Mr Orchard: Overall, the system is better and it can go on improving. I fully accept that there are access problems in some areas of the country, particularly in family. There is a lack of experience and expertise in some extremely important categories of law. I am thinking particularly of community care, mental health, housing, where ideally we would like to grow the supplier base and the expertise.

Mr Steinberg: Has not the system been made worse because, first of all, there are fewer solicitors? Many solicitors find that the amount of work they get does not pay so that they are gradually dropping out of the system and, at the end of the day, the client is losing out, which was the greatest worry that a lot of us had when this new system was brought in in the first place.

Sir Hayden Phillips: That is not the general message I have from what is happening, nor from the report. There has been a real improvement since contracting and quality came in. The fall in the numbers of solicitors meant those who are left are more professional at their job than before and we are trying to make real efforts to get some success stories in the social exclusion area. We published a document last November with the law centres called "A Pathway out of Social Exclusion" and it contained a number of examples of things that had been done since we have made the changes which are on the good side of the equation and very powerful for individuals and certain parts of the country. For example, the second most deprived ward in England and Wales is Speake in Liverpool. They now have a proper advice centre, the first of its kind in the area, with a big focus on disability and caring needs. It works outside normal office hours. We can give you illustrations of good things happening. Of course there are bad cases but I do want to assure you that we really want to make this happen.

Mr Steinberg: I am told that the situation is probably going to get even worse because you intend to reduce scope even further by phasing out tolerance work under the legal help courts scheme. I am told this scheme is where they do not have a contract. People can go in, see their local solicitor and providing it does not cost more than £500 they can get legal advice. You are phasing this out altogether so they go to the solicitor to get advice and they are told, "I am sorry, we cannot help you on this."

Mr Orchard: tolerances are an add on to a contract that is already existent. If a solicitor has a family contract for 100 cases, he can do ten other cases in work other than family, except clinical negligence and mental health. It would only be phased out if there were sufficient contractors in the immediate locality to do the work under the specialist contract. Let us take the London Borough of Newham. If we have ten debt contractors in Newham, we do not necessarily want a family contractor doing debt under tolerances. We would sooner they went to a specialist debt contractor.

Mr Steinberg: If there are not enough solicitors who are doing that particular subject, you will not phase it out from a solicitor who is doing it under the tolerance scheme?

Mr Orchard: That is right.

Mr Steinberg: The report says the number of solicitors giving a service has dropped by something like nine per cent and this has been offset by a rise in the number of not for profit organisations. Does that include citizens' advice bureaux?

Mr Orchard: Yes.

Mr Steinberg: In other words, people find it much more difficult now to see a solicitor but they can go to the citizens' advice bureaux to get the advice they want. Is that right?

Mr Orchard: Yes.

Mr Steinberg: What happens in the citizens' advice bureaux that do not have a solicitor?

Mr Orchard: They would still be expert in the category of law in which they are contracted.

Mr Steinberg: I do not understand.

Mr Orchard: There are a lot of non-solicitor agencies, including CABs, who have developed real expertise in welfare benefits, housing, death and so on.

Mr Steinberg: Shall I tell you what happens? A citizens' advice bureau will send them to Members of Parliament to sort it out. What is being created is a two tier system of law: those who can afford to see a solicitor because they pay for it themselves or those who happen to be lucky enough to get legal aid and qualify for it. The other section of society who are mainly poor are going to citizens' advice bureaux. They do a fantastic job, but they are not getting first class legal aid. We are creating a two tier system of justice in this country.

Mr Orchard: If I understand you correctly, what you are saying is there are people who do not qualify for legal aid but who cannot afford to buy legal services and they are excluded.

Mr Steinberg: Yes.

Mr Orchard: I agree.

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