Future uncertain for Community Legal Advice Centres

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The closure of Portsmouth Community Legal Advice Centre (CLAC) could signal the end of the one-stop-shop model once hailed as the ‘key’ to civil legal aid, solicitors have suggested.

Portsmouth CLAC closed on 31 March, at the end of its three-year contract. The Legal Services Commission issued a tender under the general civil contract for social welfare work in the area, but the successful bidder withdrew, leaving a gap in provision.

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When the Portsmouth CLAC opened in 2008, the LSC hailed it as the start of an ‘exciting initiative’ to be rolled out across the country.

It said CLACs, which were designed to offer a better coordinated one-stop shop for clients, were ‘at the heart’ of its strategy, and would be ‘key to delivering a civil legal aid system’.

There are now nine CLACs in operation, but the government’s proposed legal aid reforms would see legal help for social welfare law, a substantial component of their work, removed from scope.

Simon Pottinger, legal aid firm consultant at JRS Consultants, said the closure of Portsmouth CLAC signaled the end of the initiative. ‘If the legal aid green paper proposals go ahead, CLACs will have no work to do.

'I can see no reason for them to stay open at a time when social welfare law categories are being removed from the scope of legal help,’ he said.

Pete Woods, contract manager at Switalskis, which runs the Wakefield CLAC in partnership with the local citizens advice bureau, said: ‘We don’t know what will happen – it depends on the government’s response.

'But if the proposals stay as they are, CLACs may have to come to an end.’

However, Adam Griffith, policy officer at Advice Services Alliance, said the closure of Portsmouth did not necessarily mean that other CLACs would close.

He said he had been told by the LSC that the Portsmouth CLAC was a special case as it had not been seeing as many clients as expected.

The LSC declined to comment on this.

Griffith added: ‘CLACs may be the last bastions of social welfare law in the country.’

An LSC spokesman was unable to give a reason for the decision to close the Ports­mouth CLAC, but said the LSC is committed to the CLAC model and supporting all that are open.

Law Society president Linda Lee said the government’s legal aid cuts were ‘incompatible’ with the CLAC model.

She added that it was unlikely that firms would bid for the new Portsmouth contracts knowing that legal aid funding is about to be axed.

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