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Community Law Centres

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5th April 1976.

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11.42 p.m.

Photo of Mr Jack Ashley Mr Jack Ashley , Stoke-on-Trent South

The purpose of this debate is to complain about the failure of the Attorney-General to answer parliamentary Questions; to object to the Law Society's stranglehold on community law centres; and to suggest an alternative method of control.

I have been concerned about the difficulties facing community law centres, which render magnificent help to people in need. The people who serve in them are not fusty officials, removed from the workaday world; they are approachable experts in welfare law and other problems of special concern to the poor and under-privileged. They perform a significant function in dealing with social grievances which may not otherwise be heard. Yet, after seven years or so, there are still only 20 centres in Britain, and they are hampered by financial, professional and other problems. Their potential is vast, yet their growth is stunted. Now we find that the Law Society is refusing to allow one centre—Hillingdon—to operate. It is a menacing omen for the future.

The Law Society, together with the Senate of the Inns of Court and the Bar, impose restrictions on the professional conduct of lawyers, some of which create serious difficulties for law centres. For example, it is essential for the centres to advertise, yet they are allowed to do so only if the Law Society grants them a waiver.

In the case of Hillingdon, the Law Society said loftly that the burden of proving unmet needs for legal services had not been discharged. It used the language of a judge although it is primarily an advocate of the interests of lawyers. I am concerned not so much with the Hillingdon case as with the principle involved. I have discussed the case with my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Sandelson), who has been energetically involved in the problem. He wishes to intervene later, and we shall be glad to hear from him.

I am concerned that the lawyers' professional organisation should be able to dictate the development of law centres and, if they think fit, to cripple them. I am aware that disputes of this kind may be referred to the Lord Chancellor, for him to "express his view", but this is a clever formula for keeping control in the hands of the lawyers' professional organisations. Although they may defer to the Lord Chancellor on one or two special occasions, they will still be allowed to reserve their right of veto.

It is wrong that the Law Society, which is a sectional interest concerned primarily with the interests of lawyers, should be able to affect the development of law centres. The Law Society should not be allowed to put its own private interest above the public interest. It should be stripped of the power to control law centres and this power should be put in the hands of the Lord Chancellor or an independent legal commission. They could perfectly well ensure that professional standards were maintained without crippling the growth of law centres.

No doubt this problem has been referred to in the White Report, on the unmet need for legal services, which is now in the hands of the Lord Chancellor.

A curious situation has arisen. I am delighted that the Solicitor-General is here to reply to the debate. I have very great respect for him. He told me in a parliamentary answer that the report was not in a form suitable for publication, but that the Lord Chancellor hoped to make an early statement about it. I did not like that answer because I think the report should be published. But at least it was an answer honestly given and an answer in which my hon. and learned Friend believed. I put some Questions to the Attorney-General on these matters and he ignored them. Hon. Members' Questions cannot be brushed aside in this way. I must ask for an explanation.

Question No. 70 for Written Answer on Wednesday 24th March asked if the Attorney-General would seek to take over the Law Society's powers to affect the future of community law centres. In his reply, published in Hansard on Wednesday 31st March, the Attorney-General lumped that Question with three others and omitted to answer it.

An even more disturbing situation arose on the same day in regard to my Question No. 73 asking whether any person or organisation outside the Law Officers had been shown the White Report. Incredibly, that Question was also ignored by the use of a device similar to that employed in the case of Question No. 70. I asked the Question because it had been suggested to me that the Law Society had already been shown the report. If it has, the Lord Chancellor is under a clear obligation to show it to other interested parties who may form different views from the Law Society. It should be shown to these other parties before the Lord Chancellor takes a decision on it.

The Solicitor-General will know that today the Lord Chancellor has written to me saying that he has had discussions with bodies other than the Law Society, and I am glad that he has had those discussions, but my Question was whether the White Report had been shown to—not discussed with—the Law Society. That was the point of my Question. I also wanted to know whether anyone outside the Law Officer's Department had been shown the White Report. What I should like are answers to those two Questions which were ignored.

I believe, too, that the House should be given an assurance that the White Report will be published. I believe that the Solicitor-General should give a commitment that the Law Society's powers to control the future of community law centres will be taken from it and transferred to the Lord Chancellor or to an independent Law Commission. I am convinced that it is only in this way, by full and frank public debate, by showing clearly that this report is in the hands of the Lord Chancellor, and by vigorous support for the principle of law centres that we shall get anywhere.

I recognise that today my hon. and learned Friend has given me figures that show that he, personally, is anxious to support law centres, as are my right hon. Friends, but unless the proposals that I have put forward are implemented, to remove power from the Law Society and publish the White Report, we shall get no further. I therefore ask my hon. and learned Friend to reconsider the Law Society's attitude.

11.57 p.m.

Photo of Mr Neville Sandelson Mr Neville Sandelson , Hillingdon Hayes and Harlington

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) for allowing me a brief intervention. I congratulate him on having initiated this debate, and I thank him for his reference to myself.

Concern on this issue is widespread, not least in the borough of Hillingdon, of which my constituency of Hayes and Harlington is a part. In my view, the Law Society has adopted a blinkered approach, which it would be well advised to reconsider. It totally ignores the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. The criterion for permitting the setting up of a community law centre is that of local need, and this should not be interpreted in any narrow or pedantic way.

That there is such a need for this service in Hayes is recognised not only by the borough council but by all these representative individuals and social agencies most involved in the life of this community. As its Member of Parliament, and a lawyer myself, I could, if I had time, speak eloquently and in detail about the very real local need for legal advice and assistance in particular fields.

Finally, let me say to my friends in the Law Society that for all of us there are wider principles at stake in this issue. The general public are growing restive and resentful at what they consider, sometimes justifiably and sometimes quite wrongly, to be restrictive professional practices that are harmful to the social good. There is a real danger that in digging too deep a trench on this issue the profession may be digging a hole from which it will have difficulty in extricating itself. I hope that the Law Society will reconsider its position before sharper public reaction develops.

Be that as it may, this seems to be a matter that is far from intractable, and one that could easily yield to a little common sense. For that reason I am glad that the Lord Chancellor is bringing his wisdom and conciliatory talent to bear on the issue, and at this stage, having said what I have, and my hon. Friend having stated the matter with great clarity, I would think it right to wait for the Lord Chancellor's review of this decision before commenting further, though certainly there are profound issues of principle opening up for inevitable future debate in this House as well as elsewhere.

11.55 p.m.

Photo of Mr Peter Archer Mr Peter Archer , Warley West

Once more my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) has placed lawyers in his debt, though they may not universally see it that way.

I believe that my hon. Friend always performs a service when he compels us to re-think the purposes and functions of the legal system and the legal profession. Certainly I welcome his interest in law centres, and I am sure he will forgive me if I say that my interest in the subject arose earlier than his. I remember the conference held by the Society of Labour Lawyers in 1967 which led to the publication in 1968 of the Fabian Society pamphlet "Justice for All". It was the work of a committee presided over by my friend, Mr. Morris Finer, later Mr. Justice Finer, whose untimely death was such a sad blow to all who care for justice.

The principle that law centres should be established where needed was accepted in 1970 by the Law Society and by the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Legal Aid.

We now have 17 law centres in this country. There are a further five schemes, involving the employment of salaried lawyers in community development projects, and a further five instances where lawyers are employed in citizens' advice bureaux. Even in the present un-propitious state of the economy, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, on the advice of my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor, has approved funds under the urban programme for four further law centres. I am delighted that two of them are to be in Birmingham, within ready access of my constituents.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the financial stringencies last year did not prevent my noble Friend from providing £100,000 from his Vote to ensure that no law centres were compelled to close for lack of funds, and he is providing another £150,000 during the current year.

If my hon. Friend is seeking to persuade the Government of the value of law centres, he is pushing at an open door. In the past, the running in this matter has been made principally by lawyers. I know that my hon. Friend is aware of the magnificent work in this area of the Legal Action Group. I am sure that he is equally aware of the views of my noble Friend, of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and of myself, for certainly over the years we have been at no pains to conceal them.

The provision of law centres does not mean that they will take work from the solicitors' profession. We are all sometimes tempted to speak as though the various sources of legal advice and assistance were in competition. I wish that we were so encompassed with resources that we had to choose between the many sources of advice, but we are facing a situation in which, for a wide variety of reasons, large sections of the population are not aware of their rights or are unable to articulate and enforce them, and a much greater proportion of the public do not have access to advice on all the problems that confront them in this complicated world. Therefore, we need the total contribution which is available from all these sources. Indeed, there is evidence that law centres generate work for solicitors by reason of referrals. We need to co-ordinate and direct the energies of all those who are active in this sphere.

Of course, the law centres have a number of special features which make their contribution unique and enable them to offer a special kind of service. Two of them are relevant to this debate.

First, they provide a service to those who, for various reasons, would not readily seek the advice of solicitors. My noble Friend and I have both spoken publicly more than once on the reasons for this, and I shall not elaborate them further today.

Secondly, they frequently seek to involve representatives of the local community in their management and in decisions about the allocation of resources. By reason of these and their other characteristics, they help to blow a draught of fresh air—sometimes, indeed, a high-powered jet—through the legal profession.

These factors necessarily entail problems with the Solicitors' Practice Rules. These are rules made by the council of the Law Society under Section 31 of the Solicitors Act 1974. Parliament give that power to the Law Society so that it could makes rules calculated to preserve the standards of the legal profession and to do so in the interests of the public. Their ultimate justification is consumer protection, and I am sure that both my hon. Friends would approve of the notion that practising solicitors should be subject to rules of professional conduct in this way.

The rules made by the Council of the Law Society under this power require the concurrence of the Master of the Rolls, and if professional rules and their enforcement are to carry weight within the profession, one way of achieving this is for representatives of the profession to have substantial voice in the making and enforcement of these rules. But certainly, like all other rules, they should be applied with common sense in order to further the objectives for which they exist.

Solicitors working in law centres need a waiver, for example, of the rule against advertising, because it is important that people should know of the existence of the law centre and of the services which it provides. They need a waiver of the rule against profit-sharing with non-lawyers. This was introduced in order to ensure that the person to whom the practice really belongs, and who has the financial interest, is the person who is responsible in law for the conduct of the practice, and that he or she is a person properly qualified and professionally suitable. But since the law centre is usually subject to the control of a management committee, it cannot comply with that rule.

On 30th July 1974, my noble Friend said in another place that he did not think the practice rules constituted a satisfactory method of determining the way in which a particular law centre should operate, and that he and the Law Society had agreed that the Law Society would co-operate closely with his office in deciding whether a particular waiver should be granted, and on what terms. Obviously, three factors are involved in deciding these matters.

First, solicitors in law centres wish to remain members of the solicitors' profession and do not seek to establish a separate profession. Secondly, my noble Friend would not wish to take away from the profession its power, exercised through the Law Society, to regulate the practice of its members. Thirdly, it would not be satisfactory that questions about the location of law centres, and the kind of which they may do, should be determined solely by reference to professional rules designed for an entirely different purpose.

In order to resolve the difficulty, my noble Friend has agreed in principle with the Law Society that where a waiver has been refused he will be prepared to review the matter, and will communicate to the Law Society the view which he takes. The Law Society will then reconsider the application in the light of my noble Friend's view. The same arrangement will apply where a waiver has been granted on terms which are considered by the applicant to be unreasonable, where an applicant considers that there has been serious delay in dealing with his application, or where he considers that a waiver has been unreasonably revoked. In all such cases my noble Friend's view would be communicated to the applicant, as well as to the Law Society, and it would be reasonable to expect that my noble Friend's view will be accorded great weight by the Law Society.

These arrangements should ensure that the public interest is properly protected while at the same time avoiding any suggestion that solicitors in law centres are separate and distinct from other solicitors.

In forming his view of any given case, my noble Friend's overriding consideration will be the needs of the area in question. Perhaps I should take this opportunity to clarify an important distinction. We are not dealing with funding. In considering questions of financial priorities one has to identify areas of most intense need, but when dealing with waivers, the degree of deprivation is only one consideration. The question is whether the needs of the area are adequately met by the existing services. Some rural areas and some modern council estates are not deprived in the sense in which some inner city areas are deprived, and they are probably not at the top of the list for expenditure, but they may nevertheless be areas where those concerned with waivers would realise that the provision of one or more salaried solicitors would be fully justified.

It is hoped that a detailed statement of the new arrangements will be issued shortly by the Law Society. Apparently my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South would like more radical arrangements, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Sandelson) says, let us wait and see how these arrangements work. My hon. Friend will appreciate that so radical an innovation as he has suggested must await the report of the Royal Commission of which he was so effective an advocate. The arrangements will be subject to review in the light of future experience, and in any event if and when the Royal Commission makes recommendations about them. But surely it would be premature in any event to repudiate these arrangements when they are in process of being applied for the first time.

The House may have noticed that I have said nothing specifically about Hillingdon. That omission is deliberate, since the matter is being reviewed by my noble Friend, who is making the necessary inquiries. I listened very carefully to what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington, but I am sure that he will accept that it would not be desirable for me to embark today on a discussion of the merits. I hope that I have indicated the kind of principles which will be applicable in these matters.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South referred to his Question to my right hon. and learned Friend on 24th March. I have seen the correspondence which has passed between my hon. Friend, my noble Friend and my right hon. and learned Friend. I thought that my right hon. and learned Friend's answer made quite clear what was proposed but, if more was required, I hope that I have added more flesh to the bones than was possible in the space of a parliamentary answer.

My hon. Friend referred also to the report which was commissioned by my noble Friend on the unmet need for legal services. The report in question takes the form of advice by officials to their Minister, and it would not be appropriate for that advice as such to be published. By the same token, it must be for my noble Friend to decide what consultations if any to hold on matters within his ministerial responsibility. As the House already knows, my noble Friend hopes to make a statement before long on the subject of legal services, when this matter can be discussed in full.

My hon. Friends and I—certainly my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South and I—may have our differences over these matters, but they arise from our common concern with the subject, and our common deterrnination that no one in this country should be deprived of justice for want of legal aid or advice. On that principle my hon. Friend can man the barricades at any time, and be sure that my noble Friend, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, and I will be there at his shoulder.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Twelve o'clock.