Reprieve for specialist support service
The Specialist Support Provider Service (SSPS) has received a stay of execution after the Legal Services Commission agreed to extend current contracts for three months while it consults on ending the scheme.
Under the scheme, lawyers and advisers at Citizen’s Advice, law centres and law firms across the country can obtain telephone advice from experts in fields of law that may fall outside their direct expertise. The reprieve followed a threatened legal challenge by the Public Law Project (PLP) charity, one of the service providers, after the LSC announced in November 2011 that it would close the scheme. PLP questioned the LSC’s decision to end the service, taken without consultation, and asked it to reconsider or enter into mediation.
When the LSC declined to do either, PLP issued judicial review proceedings in an attempt to save the service. On 1 March, the date that a formal response to the claim was due to be filed at court, the LSC confirmed that it would carry out a full and lawful consultation. It subsequently also confirmed that the current specialist support contracts will be extended while the consultation is carried out.
The SSPS is provided by nine organisations: Citizens Advice, Shelter; virtual law firm Scott Moncrieff; the PLP; London firm Wilson & Co; Child Poverty Action Group; London Advice Services Alliance, and Shelter Cymru. Over the past four years the service has cost between £1m and £1.6m a year.
Explaining the original decision to close the service, an LSC spokesman said: ‘Since 2010 civil legal aid contracts stipulate that contract holders must be able to provide specialist advice and employ specialist advisers in-house and we continually monitor firms to ensure that they meet the contract requirement to provide legal aid clients with access to quality, specialist advice.’
PLP solicitor Jo Hickman said: ‘While we are obviously pleased with this outcome, we regret that it was necessary to bring this claim at all. The LSC refused to concede at an appropriate early stage and rejected our offer of mediation.
‘This belated concession has resulted in significant and unnecessary costs both to our charity and to the LSC itself, at a time that we should be working in partnership.’
She added: 'What we hear from those on the ground - legal aid firms and CABs suggests that the service is needed now more than ever.’
Jamie Beagent from Leigh Day & Co, PLP’s solicitors, said: ‘The SSPS is a vital lifeline for lawyers and the advice sector, providing support to some of the most vulnerable and deprived groups in the country. It will be even more invaluable as the proposed legal aid cuts bite and whole areas of legal expertise are stripped out of the present system.'