Legal aid scheme could worsen social exclusion for mentally ill

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, writes Lauren

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 a withdrawal of labour if the fixed fee scheme was
implemented and called for negotiations with the Legal Services

Association chair Richard Charlton said: “It is a supreme
and 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 to fight social exclusion are
already drying up and many will be looking to leave under fixed-fee

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 isolated and excluded from society
and save the exchequer money on healthcare, police work and social
services. However, it claims rates of pay have fallen since 1991
and the legal aid system is “on the point of

Commenting on the association’s warnings, 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 it had made it aware 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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