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£10 million worth of civil legal aid work has attracted more than 400 bids, over 90 of which are from law firms and third sector agencies wanting to start civil legal aid work for the first time - offering family and integrated social welfare legal help.
The high response rate follows a Legal Services Commission (LSC) tender for work to deliver extra legal aid cases into communities where more help is needed for people with problems like debt, housing, welfare and on family legal problems. The current slowdown in the economy, increasing debt levels and rising unemployment may impact heavily on some communities so this move to increase access to legal advice will offer welcome relief for those hardest hit.
The LSC will now begin the process of awarding contracts to law firms or Not for Profit agencies to deliver these cases, which make up part of the 1 million civil cases the LSC aims to fund in the current financial year. Meanwhile, over 70 existing firms are also proposing to set up new offices to provide legal aid services.
The tender is part of the wider legal aid reforms that aim to direct more resources into civil legal services. This will allow the LSC to offer more advice in certain categories of law in some areas of England and Wales and improve access to legal aid in some rural areas without increasing the overall legal aid budget.
The categories receiving this new funding are:
Family and domestic abuse
Social Welfare Law including: Housing; Debt; Employment; Community Care, and; Welfare Benefits.
Crispin Passmore, the Director of the Community Legal Service at the LSC said: For too long services were delivered from where lawyers' practices were traditionally based. Now the LSC is awarding contracts to quality providers based on where help is most needed. This may involve solicitors doing outreach work or expanding into new locations.
"It cannot be right that someone fleeing domestic abuse, who may face related problems of debt and housing, should need to go to three different legal providers to get the advice they need. Many do not.
"That is why we are commissioning services that mirror how people experience problems and complement our plans to create Community Legal Advice centres and networks offering holistic and joined up legal aid. We wanted to use this extra money to ensure that legal aid is available in the geographic areas and categories of law where it can make the most difference to people's lives.
"Research shows that many people experience multiple civil legal problems at the same time. We want to buy integrated legal services that address these problems, minimising the need for people to be referred from one provider to another.
"We are pleased that providers have bid for this extra work in great numbers. This is evidence that lawyers and not for profit organisations are keen to take on more work in the reformed legal aid system. It will also mean that more clients can get help"