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Points of access

19 April 10

Report on the recent Access to Justice conference run by the Society, when invited participants discussed the scope for improvement at present

by Andrew Alexander

The Law Society held a well-attended Access to Justice conference at Drumsheugh Gardens in February, bringing together a range of organisations and practitioners to discuss the challenges faced across Scotland.

Attendees included members of the Society’s Council, Access to Justice and Civil Justice committees, Scottish Government, the Scottish Legal Aid Board, Citizens Advice Scotland, Consumer Focus Scotland, the Strathclyde Law Clinic, the Legal Services Agency, Shelter, Money Advice Scotland, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Forum of Scottish Claims Managers and, from England, the Legal Services Board and the Legal Services Commission. Three main themes were discussed: the future of publicly funded legal advice; alternative services provision; and the role of court reform.

With Lindsay Montgomery of the Scottish Legal Aid Board and Colin McKay of the Scottish Government chairing the discussion on the future of publicly funded legal assistance, the substantial increase in civil assistance as a result of new financial eligibility criteria and the effects of the recession was noted. The recent increase in financial eligibility for civil assistance has had a significant effect; while welcome, it does not remove the problems around access to justice in Scotland or indeed address the issue that civil practitioners are unwilling to undertake legal aid work at current rates. The likely pressure on public funds, with the Scottish Government’s biennial spending review delayed until after the General Election, might involve “doing more with less”. While there was strong opposition to any cuts to the Legal Aid Fund, with legal aid considered a frontline service like healthcare that should be “ringfenced”, some thought that a system of before-the-event insurance might be harnessed to bring greater access to justice in austere times.

Greater co-ordination of solicitors in private practice with the wider advice sector was recommended, and in the discussion on alternative services providers, Professor Donald Nicolson of the Strathclyde University Law Clinic and Paul Brown of the Legal Services Agency chaired the session. Funding is a substantial challenge for such organisations: competing for funding often militates against cross-agency co-operation. However, the nature of alternative services providers entails that small increases to funding can generate large increases to the quantity of advice provided. The work of alternative service providers is invariably free at point of service and links are developing between, for instance, law clinics and solicitors in private practice. However, the pro bono work done by the profession is difficult to quantify, is often focused on assisting the voluntary sector and not co-ordinated effectively. The introduction of the LawWorks model to Scotland may help to rectify these problems.

The final session discussed the opportunity for court reform and was chaired by Lindsey Nicoll, secretary to the Civil Courts Review, and Richard Young, the in-court adviser for Airdrie Sheriff Court. With Lord Gill’s Review published around six months previously and as yet no commitment to the primary legislation required to enact the substantive reforms recommended, attendees considered which areas could be actioned without legislation and without delay. Complex forms, such as variable summonses for rent arrears and eviction, could be redrafted to more accurately reflect the law and more clearly explain an individual’s rights and responsibilities. The work of in-court advisers, pre-action protocols and mediation should also be encouraged.

There are a number of areas in which the Society can bring about positive change. Feedback from attendees encouraged the Society to continue to engage with the broad range of organisations represented at the conference. A report on the outcomes is available on the Society’s website and comments on the event, the report, and access to justice issues more generally are welcomed. The Society’s Access to Justice Committee will then focus on the areas discussed at the conference and the feedback received on the report, with working groups looking at areas where the Society can make a positive impact. With pro bono, the Society will support the establishment of LawWorks Scotland and will also conduct research into the amount, types and reasons for pro bono – both formal and informal – undertaken by solicitors across the country.

The report on outcomes details the discussions at the event and outlines the future work of the Society on access to justice issues. With such issues affecting almost every solicitor across Scotland, the Society hopes that the event and the report will encourage discussion, debate and positive change. Any comments or questions can be sent to Andrew Alexander, Legal Aid and Access to Justice Co-ordinator at the Society (andrewalexander@ lawscot.org.uk).

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