Constitutional Affairs Committee

Press notice No.19 of session 2005-06
13 March 2006


Flawed decision to cut specialist legal services may put vulnerable at risk

In a report released today, Tuesday 14 March 2006, the Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee strongly criticises the decision by the Legal Services Commission (LSC) to cut funding for the Specialist Support Services which are used by legal aid solicitors; law centres and advice bureaux in dealing with specialised legal problems.

The LSC decided to end the contracts, which had received very positive feedback, after a short consultation and with only six months notice. Evidence to the Committee revealed a flawed consultation process in which the option of closing down the service was not mentioned. The Committee calls on the LSC to reconsider the decision.

The Rt Hon Alan Beith, Chairman of the Committee, said:

The LSC must look at this decision again. Apart from the concerns about the way this decision was made, we can't accept that a telephone advice service for consumers can replace specialist advice to lawyers dealing with hugely complicated legal issues. This is specialist legal advice needed by vulnerable groups - people with mental health, immigration and complex public law problems - and it will be very difficult for them to understand this from a phone conversation. What's more, this will not be a free service.

All the evidence we received pointed to the success of the Specialist Support Services. There is a worrying lack of support for the proposed replacement, and questions as to why the LSC would so abruptly and prematurely end its own pilots. We are very glad that in public oral evidence to the Committee, the Lord Chancellor has assured us that he will personally look at both the process and the decision itself.


Notes:
1. The decision to cut funding for Specialist Support Services was raised by the Committee at a session on 28 February 2006 with Rt Hon Lord Falconer, the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor. In evidence to the Committee, he said: "Your hearing has led to this being focused on as an issue... it seems to me that (a) because of the process and (b) because the substance of the issue seems to me to be whether you can provide equivalent quality of service by some other means which might be cheaper, that needs to be considered ... It is not something where I can simply reverse the decision. Discussions will need to be had, but I undertake to the committee ... that I will look at it now both on process and on substance." The transcript of this session is available via the Reports and Publications page of the Committee's website: www.parliament.uk/conaffcom
2. The Report will be available on the Reports and Publications page of Committee's website: www.parliament.uk/conaffcom
3. Committee Membership is as follows: Rt Hon Alan Beith MP (Chairman), James Brokenshire MP, David Howarth MP, Barbara Keeley MP, Mr Piara S Khabra MP, Jessica Morden MP, Julie Morgan MP, Mr Andrew Tyrie MP, Keith Vaz MP, Dr Alan Whitehead MP, Jeremy Wright MP