The Law Society vice-president has outlined initiatives to bolster access to justice following the government’s proposed legal aid reforms - but stressed that Chancery Lane has not given up its opposition to the cuts.
Lucy Scott-Moncrieff (pictured) told the Gazette that the Society has given ‘a lot of thought’ to what can be done if scope cuts in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill go ahead. She highlighted a scheme in which law students help people claiming benefits and called on City firms to take on ‘strategic cases’ on a pro bono basis.
The student scheme, to be piloted by the College of Law in York in conjunction with the Society and pro bono organisation LawWorks, involves accompanying claimants to ‘work capability assessments’ carried out for the Department for Work and Pensions. The students will take a note of what happens during the assessment to provide evidence for use in any appeal.
Scott-Moncrieff said: ‘We are concerned at the growing evidence that people with disabilities are not getting the benefits that the government has deemed they are entitled to.’
In a related move, she said the Society hopes to work with students at Northumbria University to produce standard letters to GPs advising them of the information they should provide to assist assessments. ‘We are trying to make sure that decisions are not appealed so that claimants don’t need a lawyer,’ said Scott-Moncrieff.
The Society is also hoping to collaborate with City firms that have a commitment to pro bono work to take strategic cases and group actions against public bodies, including the government, where there have been breaches of domestic commitments and obligations under international treaties.
Scott-Moncrieff said many civil legal aid cases arise from poor decision-making by public bodies, a problem that will get worse as public bodies shed staff. She said the Society had started talking to two City firms that have expressed an interest.
The schemes were outlined in a speech to Northumbria University entitled ‘What shall we do without legal aid?’ in which Scott-Moncrieff proposed ways to counter threats to access to justice. Dismissing as ‘highly unlikely’ the government’s claim that pro bono lawyers and non-lawyer volunteers would fill the gap, she said that the proposed cuts require a rethink of how all parts of the profession can work together to mitigate their effects.
But she also said: ‘We haven’t given up on LASPO. We will continue our opposition to the bill and we hope it will lead to changes.’