Lawyers claim social exclusion will rise if fixed fee scheme goes ahead

    The government could undermine its own goal to tackle the social
    exclusion of people with mental health problems if it goes ahead
    with plans for a new fixed fee scheme for legal aid work, mental
    health lawyers warned this week.

    The Mental Health Lawyers Association said that proposed changes to
    the payment system, due to be announced before the end of the
    summer, would only serve to worsen the situation of people the
    government had itself acknowledged were already missing out on
    legal support (news, page 8, 17 June).

    Members expressed strong support at a committee meeting this week
    for non co-operation with the scheme when it is implemented “on a
    voluntary basis with sticks and carrots” and called for
    negotiations with the Legal Services Commission.

    Association chair Richard Charlton said: “It is a disastrous irony
    that, at the very moment the government announces its policy for
    tackling social exclusion, it removes the tools to do the
    job.

    “Fixed fees threaten to bring quality, or even any, legal
    assistance to an end. The lawyers willing to fight social exclusion
    are already drying up and many will be looking to leave under
    fixed-fee plans.”

    A paper published by the association this week says legal aid
    lawyers play a critical role in preventing people with mental
    health problems from becoming excluded from society and save the
    exchequer money on health care, police work and social services.
    However, it claims rates of pay have fallen since 1991 and that the
    legal aid system is “on the point of collapse”.

    A spokesperson for the LSC said no decision had yet been made as to
    whether the proposed changes, which would see law firms paid a
    fixed amount based on the fees they claimed this year, would cover
    mental health legal aid work.

    He added that the commission was “surprised and disappointed” that
    the MHLA was calling on its members to boycott a fixed fee scheme,
    adding that the introduction of any compulsory scheme “would be
    subject to a widespread public consultation and that the views of
    the association and its members would be actively sought”.

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