Community Law Centres

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

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Photo of Mr Jack Ashley Mr Jack Ashley , Stoke-on-Trent South 12:00 am, 5th April 1976

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.