UK Law Society commends Keele legal companion initiative


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Posted on 08 March 2013

As huge cuts to Legal Aid come into force on 1 April, Richard Miller, Head of Legal Aid at the Law Society of England, has been visiting a pioneering scheme in North Staffordshire to see how legal assistance for self-represented litigants can be delivered in new ways, and affordable legal advice may be accessed through the companions' referral to collaborating law firms.

Launched by Keele University School of Law, the Community Legal Companion (CLC) is an innovative new role developed from the McKenzie Friend principle*, which trains law students from the University under the supervision of partner organisations, to provide unrepresented litigants practical assistance throughout the legal process, and to support access to law firms' specialist services.

Each Community Legal Companion is trained and supervised by professional partners to provide support to the citizen, from filling in applications to sorting through papers and note-taking in formal proceedings. The CLC also helps individuals consider the wider range of legal pathways through dispute resolution or within the court room. 30 legal companions have so far been trained on the scheme and helped dozens of litigants in the first few weeks alone. 30 additional Keele students are to join the initiative in April. It is also thought the scheme could be rolled out to other regions, with Westminster University and Leicester De Monfort Law School expressing interest in the programme.

The Head of Legal Aid visit was directed by Keele University’s Dr Jane Krishnadas to introduce the integral relationship of the judiciary, law profession, council, and third sector in their collaboration to meet unmet community legal needs.

Richard Miller comments: “The Legal Companion scheme is vital in the wake of the cuts to Legal Aid. Thanks to the work of students at Keele University and the partnering organisations, self-represented litigants in Staffordshire will have access to some essential resources to support and help them through the legal process. The community legal companion model is a really positive initiative and could provide a model for similar programmes across the country.”

The role has been developed from the School’s pilot McKenzie scheme, in conjunction with Stoke charity, 'Voices of Experience', to attain the courts’ recognition of neutral, objective and professionally guided, assistance in family law, social welfare, housing, offender, victim and witness support, civil, criminal and tribunal proceedings.

Building on Keele's research and educational collaboration with the Citizens Advice Bureau, Law Society, several Midlands based law firms and regional third sector organisations, the scheme provides a timely response to a call from the National Law Society President, Lucy Scott Moncrieff, for “innovation in legal services to meet unmet community needs”.

Professor Andrew Francis, Head of the Keele University’s School of Law, comments: “The Community Legal Companion scheme responds to the widening gaps in publicly funded services in the courts and, in the wake of changes to the system following the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, the launch could not be more timely.

“We were delighted that Richard Miller was able to see first-hand how the scheme works and speak to those behind the initiative. It is thanks to the hard work and collaborative spirit of a number of these organisations and individuals that we have been able to turn an idea into a reality. The Companion role is a fantastic model for what can be achieved through this unique partnership and we hope it’s a scheme that can be developed further over the coming years.”

To become a Community Legal Companion, prospective students undertake a detailed training programme delivered by Keele Law School and local partner organisations before being paired with a regional law firm where they will be introduced to litigants and can start performing their role.

The scheme is being piloted with organisations including the Citizens Advice Bureau, Voices of Experience, Brighter Futures, Savana, Arch and Aspire Housing. It is thought the scheme could be rolled out to other regions, with Westminster University considering initiating a similar programme.

Jude Hawes, Equalities Team Manager at Stoke-on-Trent Citizens Advice Bureau added: “One of the biggest outcomes of this scheme is that the lawyers of tomorrow will be more socially aware, better informed of the issues faced by some of the most vulnerable people in society, and able to promote justice for disadvantaged people in need of help.”

Steve Kirwan, director of Nowell Meller Solicitors and secretary of North Staffordshire Law Society added: “Many people haven’t yet realised how far-reaching the Legal Aid cut-backs will be when it comes to supporting vulnerable self-representing litigants. When the cuts come into effect in April, the value of schemes such as the CLC will be even more apparent. The help and support being made available through the scheme makes a huge difference for people who are not familiar with the legal procedure. It also helps the courts, which have often relied on Legal Aid to help guide litigants through the process. As such, Keele University students can pick up this vital service and ensure the process is as smooth as possible.”

ENDS

*An individual who assists an unrepresented litigant in presenting their own case in court. The person does not need to be legally qualified and does not act as advocate for the litigant.

Notes to Editors

Partners

The Community Legal Companion is founded on a collaborative community partnership in research and education between the School of Law at Keele University, the Citizens Advice Bureau, Staffordshire Police Force, The Crown Prosecution Service, West Midlands, Staffordshire County Council, Stoke-on-Trent City Council, North Staffordshire Law Society, Choices, Challenge North Staffordshire, Embrace, CPS, Brighter Futures, Aspire Housing, Voices of Experience, Arch, Savana, Grindeys Solicitors, Salmons Solicitors, Knights, Ask, Brown &Corbishley, Lichfield Reynolds, Nowell Meller Solicitors and Regent and Rowchester Chambers.

Further testimonials

Glenda Terry, Advice and Services Development Officer from Community Legal Advice team: "We are looking at ways to mitigate the impact of the legal aid scope cuts and the CLOCK project creates an exciting model for us to adopt locally"

HH Judge Duggan, the Designated Family Judge for Staffordshire: "The judges of Stoke-on-Trent County Court are very impressed by the scheme and the presence of trained volunteers in our court on a daily basis provides a valuable source of support for many Court Users facing difficult issues. We feel fortunate that this imaginative scheme is based locally.”

Mike Wolfe, former elected mayor of Stoke-on-Trent and chair of Brighter Futures, said: "Government cuts to Legal Aid will deny justice and essential services to some of the nation`s most vulnerable people. Here in Stoke we have more than our fair share of people who desperately need legal help to maintain their income, their safety or their homes and to enforce other basic rights. From April the help which has been available will mostly disappear. I am delighted that CLOCK will both provide companions to people who suffer from the cuts, but will also act as a monitoring project to tell Government what impact their cuts are having. I believe it will help individuals who need to access advice and legal help and it will also give us a new breed of lawyer who are trained to understand the issues facing poorer people".

Tristram Hunt, MP for Stoke-on-Trent added: “I am very pleased to be associated with the work of the Community Legal Outreach Collaboration Keele (CLOCK). Severe cuts to legal aid will prevent the vulnerable and disadvantaged from seeking redress through the courts. The public launch of CLOCK today is a community-led response to the gaping hole the government have created, and I applaud the efforts of everyone involved.”


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