The law, apparently, is like a sausage – we lose respect for it when we know how it is made. Or so 19th century German statesman Otto von Bismarck once claimed. The same could equally be said of the machinations of public funding policy. The Bismarck quote was included in the speeches at the launch of Fife Law Centre earlier this week. The funding minefield will have to be negotiated now that the welcome new venture has opened its doors to clients.
The value of this addition to the Fife legal services marketplace should not be in any doubt. At the opening ceremony in Kirkcaldy, Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini hailed the importance of law centres in improving access to justice. And the centre’s principal solicitor, Afshan Rathore, stressed that the new service would not be competing with existing law firms, pointing out that discussions had already taken place with local lawyers about referring appropriate cases on. Likewise, the centre is committed to working in partnership with Frontline Fife, the Citizens Advice and Rights Forum and Fife Rights Forum.
But none of this would be possible without public funding – in this case from the Fairer Scotland Fund, Fife Council and the Scottish Legal Aid Board. Unfortunately, the very nature of public funding brings its own hazards.
Direct public funding of legal services is currently flavour of the month, thanks in part to the Scottish Government’s provision of cash to ease the effects of the credit crunch on disadvantaged communities. Members of the Fife public struggling to access legal representation while facing repossession, employment difficulties and family crises will undoubtedly be thankful.
But a problem arises when the responses to long-term needs are delivered through short-term funding. The Fairer Scotland Fund has been set up for three years until 2010-11, with longer term arrangements as yet unknown. Similarly, local authorities and other public bodies will undoubtedly face a squeeze on their budgets as the full impact of recession takes its toll.
Bismarck also said that politics is about the art of the possible, a truth we all recognise. But legal advice and representation for the most vulnerable in our society must surely remain at the very top of the political agenda, whatever the circumstances. The expectations of many people facing difficulties will inevitably be raised by the arrival of a valuable new legal service. We should not let them down.Ian Smart is President of the Law Society of Scotland