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- Author or Editor: Matthew Scott x
Access to justice for all, regardless of the ability to pay, has been a core democratic value. But this basic human right has come under threat through wider processes of restructuring, with an increasingly market-led approach to the provision of welfare. Professionals and volunteers in Law Centres in Britain are struggling to provide legal advice and access to welfare rights to disadvantaged communities.
Drawing upon original research, this unique study explores how strategies to safeguard these vital services might be developed in ways that strengthen rather than undermine the basic ethics and principles of public service provision. The book explores how such strategies might strengthen the position of those who provide, as well as those who need, public services, and ways to empower communities to work more effectively with professionals and progressive organisations in the pursuit of rights and social justice agendas more widely.
Chapter one outlines the history of varying approaches to social citizenship and the welfare state, exploring the different perspectives that underpin these debates. This sets the context for critically exploring more recent debates on public service modernisation and the increasing use of market mechanisms in public service provision. Some individuals may benefit from increasing choice as a result of these policies. But others may have less choice as a result, and this especially applies to people living in less advantaged communities. Public service modernisation agendas can have significant impacts on public service professionals too, posing professional dilemmas, potentially undermining the public service ethos in the process.
This chapter starts by focussing upon different definitions and perspectives on the contested notion of ‘social justice’, together with their varying implications for public policy. This sets the context for the discussion of the development of legal aid, as a key element of the welfare state, as this was established in Britain, following the Second World War. Although justice for all, regardless of the ability to pay, was the original aim, the welfare state proved inadequate when it came to realising this goal. By the 1960s and early 1970s the shortcomings were becoming only too obvious. Provision was falling far short of what was actually needed in order to ensure access to justice for all. Drawing upon models developed in the US and elsewhere radical lawyers and other social reformers, concerned with human rights and equalities, responded to these shortcomings by coming up with plans for the establishment of community Law Centres. Having outlined the history of Law Centres since then, the chapter concludes by outlining more recent changes to legal aid. This sets the context for the discussion of the potential implications for Law Centres in the chapters that follow, including the implications for values and the public service ethos more generally.
Chapter three opens by focussing upon debates on ethics and values with a particular focus on debates on the public service ethos and whether this is being undermined by public service modernisation agendas. This sets the context for the discussion of Law Centres’ own distinctive ethos and professional values, drawing upon original research into the views and experiences of staff and volunteers in Law Centres in England. Law Centres were highly committed to the values associated with access to justice for all, regardless of the ability to pay and/ or other social disadvantages. In addition, they were strongly committed to working with disadvantaged communities to promote human rights and social justice agendas more widely, with an emphasis upon working holistically, collaboratively and in preventative ways to achieve these aims. These goals were potentially challenging to achieve at the best of times, let alone in the current context. On the contrary, government policies were being geared towards the promotion of competition and the increasing use of market mechanisms more generally.
This chapter examines these challenges for Law Centres, unpacking the reforms to legal aid and their implications in more specific detail. Following the report of the Carter Commission the previous New Labour government had promoted competitive tendering for contracts to deliver legal aid, with fixed fees for payment. This was part of government attempts to reduce costs more generally. These changes resulted in major pressures on Law Centre staff and volunteers as they struggled to provide holistic services for their clients while keeping within the new funding system’s financial constraints. The more preventative, community development related aspects of Law Centres’ missions were not included at all, under this new funding regime. Meanwhile, following the election of the Coalition Government in 2010, even more serious cuts have been imposed, seriously reducing the availability of legal aid, leading to even sharper challenges for those committed to providing access to justice, regardless of the ability to pay.
Chapter five draws upon the research findings to examine the effects of changes to the provision of legal aid. There were increased pressures on management and accountability systems for instance. Law Centres had been characterised by collective ways of working in many cases, with a strong focus upon accountability downwards to the communities that they served. But it was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain these types of approaches, whilst meeting the requirements of the Legal Services Commission, including the performance targets involved. There were pressures on the pay and working conditions of Law Centre staff in the context of these financial constraints. And there were pressures towards deskilling, as the Legal Services Commission encouraged the use of cheaper, less skilled labour, to reduce costs and so keep within budget. One of the most challenging dilemmas related to the potential pressure to start charging clients for some services. For some Law Centre staff and volunteers this was becoming a pragmatic necessity, in order to keep services going at all. For others, though, such a development would represent a fundamental betrayal of Law Centres’ ethos and values.
Issues of conflict and competition are explored in this chapter, as Law Centres found themselves competing with other providers for contracts and for other sources of funding. Increasing competition had been a specific objective of public service modernisation agendas, competition having been assumed by previous governments to improve efficiency, value for money and choice for service users. The New Labour government continued this commitment to the promotion of competition as a mechanism for driving up standards in public service provision – although New Labour also emphasised the potential value of partnership working. A number of Law Centres had already found themselves competing with other advice agencies for resources. In face of the mounting pressures towards increasing competition, however, some came to the view that collaborative strategies could offer more positive ways forward. This chapter concludes with case studies of Law Centres that were succeeding in developing collaborative approaches, working in partnership rather than competing with other like-minded agencies in order to provide better co-ordinated, more holistic services to their communities – and in more cost-effective ways.
Another aspect of marketization relates to the issue of time. There have been associated pressures to use time more effectively to maximise productivity. The funding system for the provision of legal aid meant that the time allotted to each individual client needed to be carefully monitored and controlled. If a client’s problems were complex, requiring more than the allotted time, as was so often the case, this posed dilemmas for Law Centre staff. How could they meet their clients’ needs in such cases, whilst meeting their performance targets? Failure to square this particular circle would risk jeopardising the Law Centre’s funding? Those interviewed pointed out that time was actually being wasted under the new funding system as a result of the cumbersome bureaucratic systems involved. And time was being wasted more generally as a result of poor decision making in public bodies, leading to the need for subsequent appeals. Meanwhile the time spent on preventative work, including public legal education, was actually time well-spent, it was argued, making savings for the longer term. But this type of preventative work was not being recognised as being in need of public funding, nor was this being recognised in relation to the funding regime’s performance targets overall.
This chapter brings together the evidence on the impact of these changes on staff motivation and commitment. The New Public Management has been criticised for assuming that people in general – and public service professionals more specifically – can’t be trusted, needing the discipline of targets and close monitoring. This negative approach fails to take account of the actual motivations and values of those involved, it has been argued, motivations and values that may actually be undermined by the imposition of target-type cultures, such as those associated with the New Public Management. The research did indeed identify examples of disaffection and demoralisation among Law Centre staff and volunteers. Some were so alienated that they were actually leaving, feeling that it was becoming impossible to work in ways that were consistent with their professional values any longer. More widely though, there were inspiring examples of continuing commitment amongst staff and volunteers, giving of their time as ‘labours of love’. This was despite the pressures and dilemmas that they were experiencing, dilemmas that would have been less draining for them personally if they had not been investing so much emotional labour in the process.