The Community Legal Service is a cornerstone of Lord Irvine's programme of legal reform - the biggest shake-up of the legal system for at least 50 years. The reforms, announced recently in the government's white paper Modernising Justice, are aimed at increasing access to justice for ordinary people.
The pioneer scheme is the first to be launched under the Government's plans to co-ordinate regional initiatives announced by deputy prime minister John Prescott in October.
Lord Irvine said, 'We must focus taxpayers' money on the people who most need help. With the Community Legal Service - for the first
The pioneer areas will develop the new concept of Community Legal Service partnerships, a forum for the local authority to co-operate with the Legal Aid Board and other key funders, as well as local providers, in planning legal and advice services, encouraging the development of referral arrangements between providers and, crucially, ensuring that local people are aware of, and have access to help when they need it.
The small group of pioneers was chosen from a shortlist of interested local authorities, to test the Community Legal Service concept in a range of very different areas, from the inner city to rural regions.
A number of other local authorities will also be invited to join the scheme to pool information and ideas. Known as 'Associate Pioneers', these areas will be announced early next year when the lord chancellor publishes a consultation paper on the Community Legal Service.
Lord Irvine said, 'These are forward-looking authorities with real commitment to change in providing the legal services that ordinary people really want. They will show the way to our national goal of giving every community a network of quality providers of advice and help. The work of the pioneers will be key in establishing how we give people throughout England and Wales ways of getting the good quality legal advice they need quickly - whether they use an advice centre, a Citizens Advice Bureau, a solicitor, the internet or the 'phone.
'There is an unmet need in many areas of the country. Too many people have no easy way of getting reliable legal help with disputes and problems.
'In future, people will be able to get quality-assured advice on how their problems can be resolved - and not necessarily through the courts. We will be able to put money into innovative, alternative ways of settling people's disputes.'
The pioneer partnerships are the government's latest area-based initiative targeted at helping local communities. The lord chancellor's department is working closely with the department of the environment, transport and the regions to co-ordinate the scheme with other initiatives in these areas.
Deputy prime minister and DETR secretary of state, John Prescott said, 'People need access to good legal advice and services, so I warmly welcome this initiative by the lord chancellor. It fits in very well with the other measures we are taking on housing, jobs, transport, crime and the environment to improve the quality of life for local communities in areas of need.
'This initiative is the first to be launched under the new arrangements I announced in October to co-ordinate area-based initiatives or zones. It is an excellent way to kick off these arrangements which have at their heart improving public services for local people.'
1. The lord chancellor announced proposals establishing Pioneer areas to test the idea of Community Legal Service Partnerships in a speech to the Holborn Law Society on 2 November. He also announced that he would be looking to achieve quality standards through introducing a system of 'kitemarks'. A task force, including the major advice sector networks, will be set up in the New Year to develop the system of kitemarks. The speech is available on the LCD website (www.open.gov.uk/lcd).
2. A consultation document on the Community Legal Service will be published early in 1999.
3. The Access to Justice Bill, published on 3 November, contains provisions for the Community Legal Service. A new body, the Legal Services Commission, will be required to establish, maintain and develop the Community Legal Service. The Legal Services Commission will maintain a Community Legal Services Fund which it will use to contract for legal services as part of the Community Legal Service.
4. A package of measures to ensure area-based initiatives such as housing, health, education and employment are co-ordinated so that
they serve local people as effectively as possible was announced by the deputy prime minister John Prescott on 28 October. For further details see the DETR website (www.detr.gov.uk).