Garden Court Chambers has been involved in the specialist support project since its inception five years ago as a pilot. Following the pilot, an extensive evaluation exercise took place. That exercise resulted in the LSC deciding that the project was a valuable and important way of addressing the legal needs of the most vulnerable sections of the community. The project was found to represent good value for money both in terms of the quality and quantity of advice, support and training provided and in terms of early resolution of problems without the need for litigation.
The provision of specialist support by telephone (and follow-up work) gets specialist legal advice to high street firms of solicitors, and to other organisations who wouldn?t otherwise get it. The advice given enables parties to know where they stand legally at the beginning of the legal dispute, and so saves time and costs which would otherwise be wasted in pursuing or defending hopeless cases. The specialist support also provides training for frontline legal providers, keeping them up to date with legal developments. All these functions are performed by the specialist support providers at a very low cost within the project.
Now it is to be swept away. How is it to be replaced? How are frontline legal advisers to deal with difficult and complex legal issues in the areas of housing, employment, immigration, human rights, mental health, welfare benefits, community care and debt which the project covers? The situation for legally aided providers of legal services in the high street has got worse, not better, in the period of the project. This decision therefore has to be seen in the context of the draconian cuts to legal aid provision, particularly in the fields of housing and immigration, which have led to a quite dramatic reduction in the availability of good quality legal advice on the high street.
The review concludes that 'excellent' specialist advisers are a luxury which the LSC can't or won't afford. The implication is that only privately funded clients are entitled to 'excellent' advice; for the ordinary person on the street, 'requisite' services will do. But the fallacy of this argument is that proper legal advice is a luxury. It is a necessity, to avoid long, costly and wasteful litigation. Indeed, that people know and can access basic rights in the fields of housing, employment and immigration/ asylum/ human rights, and the other areas covered by the project, is an absolute necessity for a democratic society.