If the Citizens Advice Bureaux issue a Press statement, then something fairly imPortant is being commented on. And last Week's notice (which is only the second release the CABx have ever issued) looked at the possible withdrawal by the Law Society of its voluntary legal advice scheme.
At the moment a person with small Means may receive legal assistance if he qualifies under the legal aid and advice Provisions. But entry into this scheme is by way of means tests. Many therefore Prefer to opt for the Law Society's voluntary scheme whereby half an hour of a solicitor's time can be bought for £1. If the solicitor cannot fully deal with the inquiry during this time, he has to say so, and then put a price for a fuller Consultation. The Law Society is considering withdrawing this scheme because it believes that the £25 scheme, which comes into force next April, will cover all unmet legal needs.
The National CAB surveyed 384 bureaux and asked if, in their opinion, such optimism was justified. Nearly 90 per cent Of bureaux replied that there would still be a need for the voluntary scheme even When the £25 scheme comes into oPeration.
The bureaux were also asked if they found the voluntary scheme a useful ineans of obtaining legal advice and redress, and nearly 100 per cent replied that they did. More important, nearly 100 Per cent had solicitors in their area who Were prepared to operate the scheme. It is the view of the National CAB that the use of legal assistance might be ,seriously affected if the only access to legal help for people on small incomes is through the £25 scheme. It feels that the statutory scheme will probably act as a general disincentive because of the time it takes to fill in all the forms, because of a general dislike of means testing, and ,hecause of the still low income and capital 'milts involved in assessment. The £25
scheme might also deter those who merely want a quick, accurate, but inexpensive assessment of their legal ponition.
When the Law Society is pushed a little on why it is thinking of withdrawing the voluntary scheme, it comes up with another reason in addition to the one that the scheme will no longer be needed once the £25 scheme is in operation. We are told that it is no longer economical to continue providing advice at £1 for half an hour. Only if the sum were raised to around £4 to £5 could it continue its support.
So the dirty little trick is exposed. Off goes the Law Society whispering that the voluntary scheme will be withdrawn, because it is no longer needed. But if it is not needed when it costs only £1 for half an hour's advice, why will there be a demand at four or five times the cost? Custos hopes that the new Minister for Consumer Affairs — who is himself a lawyer — will see first, that the Law Society doesn't break the price freeze, and second, whether they should be allowed to threaten the withdrawal of legal services to poor people without the Minister having a careful look at what they are really up to.