Five-Year Strategy: 'seamless service' for social welfare praised, but more money needed

Legal aid solicitors have this week welcomed plans from the Legal Services Commission (LSC) to pilot innovative ways of providing advice in civil cases through specialist clinics and telephone services - but have warned that the proposals will flop without extra funding.

Launching its five-year strategy for the Community Legal Service (CLS) last week, the LSC pledged to tackle the problem of one million people going without advice each year by setting up community legal advice centres focused on providing a 'seamless service' for social welfare problems.

It also proposes satellite services in doctors' offices and community centres in areas where it is not feasible to set up a full-scale service. This would be linked to community legal and advice networks, where centres would be commissioned to form a network that could deliver a service tailored to the region.

Echoing last week's government report on the fundamental legal aid review, the LSC also proposed funding arrangements such as block contracting and greater use of fixed fees in civil work.

Speaking to journalists last week, CLS director Crispin Passmore admitted that its original plans for CLS partnerships - based on the concept of providing a holistic service through referrals to other agencies - had not worked out.

However, Mr Passmore said the commission was committed to turning things around. '[It] is reasonable for us to commission services in locations where clients need them rather than where suppliers might otherwise choose to provide them,' he added.

But outgoing Law Society President Edward Nally said civil legal aid had become the 'forgotten Cinderella' service. 'We applaud many of the plans but fear that without new money these ideas will not deliver real benefits,' he said.

The Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) said it wanted to have further discussions about the funding proposals in light of the current fixed-fee scheme, adding that it had concerns about the expansion of telephone and Internet-based advice. 'We are alarmed that the price of doing so may be to discontinue some existing face-to-face services,' LAPG director Richard Miller warned.