The Community Legal Service (CLS) is a network of quality assured providers of information and advice about people's rights. It was launched as an initiative to improve access to justice, particularly for those sections of society who are most in need of help.
Underpinning the CLS are the guiding principles of:
- access to legal advice and information for the public, regardless of their circumstances
- access to legal advice and information delivered by quality assured providers
- strategic planning and delivery of legal services to meet the identified needs of local communities
The Access to Justice Act 1999 placed a statutory duty on the Legal Services Commission (formerly the Legal Aid Board) to work in partnership with local authorities and other funders and with the providers of information and advice services in order to develop the CLS.
It is very important to remember that the CLS is a vision or concept, not an organisation in itself. It brings together a range of agencies (funders as well as advice providers) in agreement about the importance of good quality information and advice, and committed to working together to make sure that individuals and communities can access this.
As it is community led, the CLS may look very different in different areas - but the underlying values are the same.
Why work in partnership?
In many areas, excellent legal and advice services already exist, provided by solicitors in private practice, by advice agencies and by local authorities.
However, these services are not always linked and do not necessarily work collaboratively for the benefit of their clients.
People may not know which agency to approach for help with their particular problem and may have to try several before finding one that can help. Alternatively, an agency may undertake to help them, but may lack the necessary specialist knowledge and the advice they receive may be of poor quality.
The Community Legal Service aims to co-ordinate the planning and funding, the quality assurance, development and provision of legal services in local communities.
Involvement in local CLS partnerships (CLSPs) will enable funders to take a more co-ordinated and informed approach to the funding of advice services, although the final decisions about funding services will still rest with each individual funder.
What do CLS partnerships do?
CLSPs are structured in a variety ways, although most have a steering or executive group and either working groups to pursue specific tasks or sub-groups representing particular interests (such as funders or providers).
The main tasks of a partnership are:
- mapping the existing supply of information and advice services including, for example, CABx, solicitors and local authority services
- analysing local need for information and advice services. This includes categories of advice, such as debt or housing, and types of services suitable for different people, such as older people, young people, people with disabilities, refugees or asylum seekers
- preparing a strategic plan for the development of information and advice services
- improving the co-ordination of funding of information and advice services
- encouraging the development of better referral arrangements between the providers of legal and advice services
- raising local awareness of information and advice services to improve access
Who should be involved?
A partnership will only work if the right players are involved. The following groups and organisations all have a role to play:
- Funders - As well as the Legal Services Commission and the local authorities who fund and/or provide information and advice services, there may be other funders which should be involved, for example, a local charitable trust.
- Advice and information providers - Suppliers of the whole range of information and advice services need to be represented – nor for profit organisations, such as Citizens Advice Bureaux, solicitors' firms and direct suppliers of advice such as local authority Trading Standards departments or Welfare Rights Units. If there are equalities organisations in the area such as Race Equality Councils or Disability organisations, they should be invited too.
- Community groups and ‘User' groups or agencies – Local community groups and agencies involving and representing ‘communities of interest' such as older people or people with disabilities are vital if the CLSP is to achieve an understanding of local needs.
- Local networks - Depending on local circumstances, there may be other networks which could usefully be represented on the Partnership such as the local Law Society or Centre for Voluntary Services.
- Other sectors - An increasing number of CLSPs involve representatives from different sectors, such as health and education. Links are being forged with initiatives such as the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) and the Connexions Service for young people.
Guidance and good practice sharing
Guidance for CLSPs on carrying out their tasks has been developed by the Legal Services Commission, based on the experience of ‘pioneer' and early-starting CLSPs. This guidance, as well as information about the LSC's own ‘predictive needs' models is available in printed form and can be downloaded from the website.
National, regional and local good practice-sharing events are held so that CLSPs can learn from the experience of their colleagues and explore in depth areas of priority interest. These have included regional conferences on immigration, research into the advice needs of victims of domestic violence, and workshops on meeting the advice needs of young people.
A national newsletter CLSP News is published 3 to 4 times per year, taking a themed approach. Topics addressed have included co-ordinated funding, meeting the advice needs of older people, and joining up with the health sector.
To find out more about the work of CLSPs in your area and to get involved, contact the Regional Planning & Partnership Team in your nearest LSC regional office. Details of national developments are available from the Planning & Partnership Development Team at Head Office.
Contact details, back issues of CLSP News and copies of the Guidance for CLSPs can all be accessed on www.legalservices.gov.uk.