It’s not as crazy as you might think.
The legal landscape in England and Wales changed in 2007 with the introduction of The Legal Services Act 2007. The Act, known informally as ‘Tesco Law’, introduced the ‘alternative business structure’ (“ABS”), which allows ‘appropriate companies to provide legal services to clients.
The Guardian reviewed the impact of Tesco Law at the time. The article noted, whilst it may not have been the big bang that some feared, that “in five or 10 years’ time, the face of legal services could look very, very different“.
And weren’t they just right.
This week, the very first charity-run law firm has opened in Leicester.
Castle Park Solicitors launched in the heart of the city’s legal district, and provides “high-quality, low-cost, legal services to people who might otherwise be priced out of the market, particularly following recent cuts to legal aid.”
The Castle Park law firm, which grew out of another general advice charity ‘Community Advice and Law Service’, seems to be the very first example of “Oxfam Law”, of a law firm coming from the not-for-profit sector. Castle Park will initially offer family and employment law advice, but do so at competitive rates, in bite-sized chunks, and in user-friendly packages.
I think this is a really positive development, and has a lot of potential, for three main reasons:
1. It Can Transform Not-for-Profit Legal Advice
This development will build on the work of Law Centres, which have existed since the early 1970s and work within local communities to serve local people. Law Centres are independent, not-for-profit, and are accountable to their local communities, with local people helping with their management.
But Oxfam Law would allow charity-based legal services to develop and grow out of simply local communities, offering paid-for legal services where the profits are used to grow the business not make their lawyers wealthy.
And that must be positive.
2. It Should Transform Charity Legal Teams
Many larger charities already employee solicitors to help them stay legal and advise them on their complex work, which saves them having to pay law firms to give them advice.
Surely, it would not be a difficult move for larger charities to use this pre-existing legal resources to offer legal services to other people, as part of their charitable work?
3. It Might Transform the Legal Aid Cuts
Many people imagine all lawyers to be well-paid fat cats, sucking the blood from their poor clients. While that may or may not be true (and as a former commercial lawyer, I’d prefer remain silent!), it is true that many lawyers do try to help society, providing services on the high street, to those on low incomes, to charities and to the wider third sector.
But the recent cuts to legal aid, so wonderfully lampooned by Radio 4’s John Finnemore (audio link and text link), will in effect be removing a vital access to justice for the most vulnerable in our society.
The government are seeking to save £350 million from the legal aid bill. While we all know cuts have to happen, and the legal aid budget should of course be reviewed, many have highlighted the potential damaging effect of the Government’s current approach.
Perhaps when the Government see that we are now in a position where charities are having to provide legal services, they might reconsider their position.
So, Oxfam Law?
It really just might work…