The legal sector needs to operate within a wider context to meet the needs of the vulnerable.

In exiting my role as policy officer for Citizens Advice, I have been been asked for reflections on a turbulent decade for legal services and justice. First, I feel compelled to defend the Law Society’s actions over the proposed criminal legal aid reforms, especially as some of those complaining looked the other way and remained silent over the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders bill.

Social welfare legal aid was faced with an 80% cut and family legal aid with a 60% cut, and working with the Justice4All coalition and the Law Society’s Sound off for Justice campaign involved noisy protest, campaigning and lobbying. But it achieved few, if any, concessions.

Learning from this bitter disappointment, the Society’s hard negotiations with ministers over the criminal legal aid proposals has delivered substantial concessions and the death of PCT.

What is left is a 17.5% cut. Frankly, if social welfare/family work had managed to secure this outcome, it would be seen as positive. Instead, free legal services in these areas simply do not exist in much of England and Wales any more. Civil practitioners at least benefit from the Law Society having blocked plans to extend PCT to civil and family work, which would have wiped out the remaining civil supply altogether.

What strikes me too, is the extent to which legal aid policy has been worked out in its own little silo, cut off from debates relating to public services, policy development, access, quality and advice provision. Social care is one example. Important new duties under the Care and Support Bill are being placed on local authorities in respect of advice, information and advocacy on care matters. This is something the legal sector needs to be engaged in; we all grow old.

Then there is the Ministry of Justice, where there is little join-up between reducing re-offending/prison population initiatives and policy-making in respect of criminal defence services. Separate specialist policy and lobbying communities have evolved as if these issues are discrete.

Politically there is also a gulf between liberal democratic rule of law rhetoric and policy-making. Viewed from the narrow ‘legal silo’ perspective, the decision to restrict civil legal aid to fundamental civil liberties and human rights issues makes sense – a proportionate response to prioritising scarce public funds. But this has completely removed law from its social and community context. Legal issues, whether civil or criminal, are causatively connected to socio-economic ‘cluster’ problems of poverty, indebtedness, dependency, redundancy and family breakdown.

I fear we have reached an end game in which statutory social and welfare services, CABx and voluntary sector advice providers, remaining civil legal aid providers, criminal defenders, money advisers, consumer advocates, and the pro bono law community see themselves as providing entirely separate services – even where their clients rarely present their problems as separate.

Where conventional public and private sector services have failed to meet need, claims management companies have stepped in. They have mis-sold and marketed dysfunctional ‘no win, no fee’ products to the poorest, bombarding everyone with text messages. This has presented new regulatory challenges.  

Regulation, as much as demand, can change and shape the context and environment for legal services. So I have championed alternative business structures, because they encourage the legal sector to operate in wider contexts, to combine legal/non-legal services, and to deliver in different ways. But market innovation only does so much to help the poorest.  

So there remains much to address. One ray of light is emerging from the independent Low Commission for a new common agenda built around ‘advice and legal support’, tackling issues of both exclusion and capability.

James Sandbach was the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Putney in 2010