Britain's poorest face losing legal advice

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The Independent Online
Some of the poorest and most disadvantaged people would be hit under controversial plans by the Lord Chancellor's Department to abolish the legal aid advice scheme for criminal cases.

Gary Streeter, the Home Office minister responsible for legal aid, is expected to decide within a fortnight whether to sweep away the "green form" scheme which allows legal advisers to give up to two hours' free advice without authorisation from the Legal Aid Board.

The proposal, which would not require legislation, is understood to have the personal backing of Mr Streeter, who has championed legal aid reform. Legal campaigners say the move, intended to speed up the legal process, will lead to greater delays and higher costs. Some lawyers have warned that if Mr Streeter presses ahead with abolition rather than am- endment of the scheme, he would open himself to the risk of judicial review in the courts.

Moves to introduce the change have been made almost by stealth, with minimal consultation over a few weeks instead of the several months allowed by the department.

A letter from a departmental official last month stated: "Our provisional view . . . is that we should remove advice on criminal matters from within the scope of the green form scheme". But the letter was sent only to the Law Society, the solicitors' professional body, and not to other welfare, legal and campaigning groups.

The department appears to want things both ways. Some pounds 23.6m was spent on criminal green form advice in 1995-96, involving 377,564 acts of assistance. Yet, said the letter: "We have some difficulty in understanding what it is the green form is being used for that could not and should not be properly covered in other ways." The Law Society and campaigners from the Legal Action Group say the scheme is essential in two main categories of case: where a person is under investigation by the police and has not yet been charged; and where cases are not serious enough for representation under the full legal aid scheme. The latter might include those not involving risk of imprisonment, or failure to pay a television licence.

The free advice is often needed while applications for full criminal legal aid, now subject to rigorous means testing, are being considered.

The move has also come at a time when the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, is warning magistrates to cut down on the number of adjournments. Vicki Chapman, policy officer for the Legal Action Group, said: "More adjournments will be required if preliminary work has not been done or unrepresented litigants have been unable to get advice before arriving at court. Far from speeding things up, this change would cause greater delays and add to costs."

The group has warned that people who couldn't get help under the scheme would now turn to court or police station duty solicitors, threatening the viability of schemes in some areas. The upshot could be that there are no significant savings.

Under present regulations there is no clear demarcation between work that can be done under various parts of the legal aid scheme. But Russell Wallman, director of policy at the Law Society, said: "Of course, the Government must make sure there is no duplication. That does not call for the scrapping of the scheme in its entirety. The green form scheme exists specifically to give people advice about their legal position in situations where they are not having representation in court."