We welcome the debate initiated by the Law Society about how we can protect access to justice for people on low incomes after the legal aid cuts come into force next April. Some of the comments on the Gazette’s website following the article, ‘Lawyer trust accounts "could fill legal aid gap"’, suggest that some Gazette readers are not familiar with how interest on lawyers’ trust accounts (IOLTA) schemes work.
IOLTA schemes are allowed under the SRA rules. Indeed, some firms, like Allen & Overy, already run their own local IOLTA schemes. Their income is generated by putting clients’ monies into a pooled account rather than individual client accounts, so a slightly higher rate of interest is generated. Clients receive the same amount of interest as they would have received from a separate account. The difference between the interest from investing a single client’s money and the interest from investing all clients’ money in a pooled account is used by IOLTA schemes to give to good causes.
IOLTA schemes are already well established in other countries such as the US, Australia and New Zealand. They were first established in Australia and Canada in the late 1960s to generate funds for legal services to people on low incomes and for other charitable purposes. In the US, virtually all the US IOLTA programmes use their revenue to provide grants to organisations so they can provide legal advice in civil matters to low-income residents. In this way IOLTA enables hundreds of thousands of Americans to get the legal help they need.
The campaign to influence LASPO was probably the most powerful and well co-ordinated lobbying exercise ever carried out by the legal community, working across the whole spectrum of legal providers with the Law Society as one of the key protagonists. Despite this concerted effort, which achieved some significant victories, LASPO became law and will deny some of the most vulnerable members of society access to justice. We therefore have to investigate every possible way of helping to fund civil legal advice.
As the Law Society spokesperson said in the article, the feasibility of a national IOLTA scheme in the UK needs to be thoroughly investigated, along with the other suggestions that have been made.
Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, Law Centres Federation, London EC4