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JUSTICE DENIED: Solicitor accuses Law Society of Scotland of “abuse of power” – as legal aid decision by solicitors regulator leaves disabled clients denied access to justice

29 Jul

Solicitor Daniel Donaldson campaigns for reinstatement of legal aid certification. THE Law Society of Scotland has been accused of “abuse of power” and terminating access to justice for disabled & vulnerable clients – after a law centre was forced to pull out of legal aid work due to what appear to be internal politics at the professional body for Scottish solicitors.

The claims are made by a disabled solicitor – Daniel Donaldson – who founded Legal Spark – a Glasgow based law centre – with the aim of helping disabled people and other clients excluded from Scotland’s legal system.

Last year, the Law Society of Scotland granted permission to law centre Legal Spark to take on legal aid cases – allowing the law practice to take on cases from disabled people who had been unable to secure legal representation for their discrimination cases.

However, after the Law Society approved the law practice to engage in legal aid work, certification for Legal Spark to take on new legal aid cases has since been withdrawn – with unconvincing explanations from the Edinburgh based regulator – resulting in clients facing an uncertain future in terms of their access to the legal system.

Daniel Donaldson – who qualified as a solicitor six years ago – spent a year discussing Legal Spark with the Law Society of Scotland – which originally described the disabled solicitor’s proposals to create a facility to provide disabled clients with access to justice as “refreshing” and “innovative”.

However, the solicitor has now accused the Law Society of abandoning disabled clients and has set up a public petition calling for help in restoring his law centre’s legal aid certification

Readers can view more details of the petition here: Law Society of Scotland: Allow Legal Spark Legal Practice to continue Legal Aid Work

Speaking to a DOI journalist earlier today, solicitor Daniel Donaldson said the Law Society’s decision would deprive disabled people of access to justice.

Mr Donaldson said: “It’s completely unacceptable for any public authority to ignore disabled service users.  We set us Legal Spark because of a problem with access to justice.” 

“We volunteered to do legal aid work to help unrepresented disabled people.  Now the LSS has forced us to stop.  What’s changed in six months? Nothing.  They’ve made this decision for other reasons and not ,”public protection” as claimed.”

“The LSS believes they can do what they like with no scrutiny or accountability. Individuals are free to abuse their position. I call upon the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government to strip them off all their regulatory functions and being an end to their abuse of power”

Out of concern for clients welfare after the Law Society’s decision to revoke legal aid certification – Legal Spark contacted 134 lawyers from a list provided by the Law Society of Scotland of law firms who take on civil legal aid cases and specialise in discrimination law.

However, not one law firm has taken any of Legal Spark’s clients – a move which is generating suspicion among some legal observers that the Law Society is unfairly controlling and restricting certain law firms and their clients access to legal aid.

The Disability News Service reported on the story, quoting  a Law Society Scotland spokeswoman who said: her organisation had made “a mistake” in originally granting Legal Spark permission to carry out civil legal aid work, before realising that it was “not entitled to provide this type of advice under the society’s civil legal assistance quality assurance scheme”.

The Law Society spokeswoman said: “The committee made a final decision on 16 June that a waiver could not be granted for public protection reasons and as the compliance certificate for Legal Spark had been issued in error, it could no longer provide advice funded by legal aid.

“The committee agreed that given the circumstances, Legal Spark could continue working with its legal aid clients until 30 June, to allow sufficient time to make alternative arrangements for clients.”

She said law centres have to be “underpinned by a solicitor practice unit [which she said Legal Spark was not]in order to be able to be on the civil legal aid quality assurance scheme register and provide legal aid funded advice”.

She added: “While it is rare for something to go wrong, clients have to be able to seek redress and as it currently stands, Legal Spark is not in a position to meet those requirements.”

The Disability News Service further reported:  By noon yesterday (28 July), the Law Society Scotland had failed to explain why it has refused to enter into mediation, although it claims that it was “still in communication with Legal Spark”.

The website of Legal Spark describes the legal services provider as  an innovative legal practice. Legal spark is a law centre, not a firm of solicitors.

Legal Spark state: “All lawyers will provide legal services,  but our practice is unique. Our practice is driven to maximise social impact, rather than to maximise profits for shareholders. Our business is ethical, and our legal practice promotes social responsibility.”

The law centre also pledges to reinvest their profits of commercial legal work to help people by:

* organising and taking part in outreach events in communities

* providing legal advice and representation for disabled people

* maintaining a commitment to legal aid work

Legal Spark are located at 22 Montrose Street, Merchant City, Glasgow G1 1RE email: contact@legalspark.co.uk

Petition : Law Society of Scotland: Allow Legal Spark Legal Practice to continue Legal Aid Work

Campaign created by: Daniel Donaldson

Campaign website: http://www.legalspark.co.uk/

Campaign facebook: http://www.facebook.com/legalspark

To: The Law Society of Scotland, the Scottish Legal Aid Board and others

The Law Society and Legal Aid Board informed Legal Spark Legal Practice that they had to stop all legal aid work on 30th June. As a result, “A”, “B’ plus many other disabled clients are forced to forego representation. They have the power to reverse their decision, together we can make that happen.

Why is this important?

Legal Spark was formed as a result of the crisis in legal aid. People were going without representation because they could not afford a lawyer. This is particularly the case for disabled people.

No one else would do this type of work, as it was deemed too expensive, not financially viable and also too complex.

Daniel Donaldson, a disabled Solicitor, set up Legal Spark with the Support of the Scottish Institute for Enterprise under their Young Innovators Challenge 2015 programme.

Daniel wanted to develop creative solutions to help people access justice and to fix the exclusion that disabled people face from the legal system.

Daniel spent one year talking to the Law Society about this issue, highlighting that it was important that everyone could access a lawyer.

Legal Spark consulted with the Chief Executive (Lorna Jack), the Head of Professional Practice, the Registrar and the Deputy Registrar (James Ness) and the Secretary to the Civil Legal Aid Quality Assurance Committee (Hannah Sayers) amongst others.

A document was prepared that explained what Legal Spark was planning to do. The Law Society accepted this document and did not object. The Law Society encouraged Legal Spark and found their approach “refreshing” and “innovative”.

Legal Spark was granted permission to do Legal Aid work in November 2015, and a compliance certificate was issued in December 2015. Legal Spark began helping the many disabled people that needed their help and began to have success.

In April 2016, the Law Society decided that they had made an “error” and instructed Legal Spark to stop all Legal Aid work by Thursday 30 June 2016. By this stage, Legal Spark had a number of clients, with active and complex cases, some of which were about to go to Court.

“A” is one such client. They had experienced awful disability discrimination from a University. They were not given adequate support to help them during a course, and had to leave. Additionally, Legal Spark uncovered evidence that the University’s staff had used “unprofessional language” in their approach to “A”. This case has now been lodged in Court.

“B” is another client adversely affected by this decision. B is also disabled and is housebound. They had tried to find a lawyer for sometime but because of their rural location in the Highlands there were no Solicitors available to help. Legal Spark took on this case and was successful (in part) in achieving a resolution for B. However, because B had been adversely affected by a decision of Highland Council, and had lost out financially, the case may need to go to Court. B is unable to find anyone else to help them.

These are only two examples of where Legal Spark is making a difference, there are others too.

Since establishing Legal Spark, Daniel Donaldson has not drawn a salary and has used some of his own money to sustain the Legal Practice while it develops and is able to stand on its own feet.

Legal Spark has also grown to enable it to employ staff and provide much need paid employment to some disabled people and unemployed law graduates.

The Legal Aid certificate meant that Legal Spark could help people who could not access help elsewhere. Now “A”, “B” and other will have to go without representation because of the Law Society of Scotland’s failures.

The Law Society’s Chief Executive (Lorna Jack)says that they have to act in the public interest. The Director of Regulation (Philip Yelland) shares this view.

1. Where is the public interest in denying disabled people representation?
2. Also, where is the public interest is giving permission to do Legal Aid work only to revoke that permission 6 months later?

The Law Society say that there are other Solicitors who can help, however this is not true.

Legal Spark contacted 134 Civil Legal Aid lawyers with advertised specialism in discrimination law. Even the biggest Legal Aid firm in Scotland could not help.

The Law Society has said that this will cause Legal Spark’s disabled client’s “inconvenience”. This is an offensive comment; they have never met any client, they have ignored client’s opinions, and also refused to acknowledge that they will suffer substantial prejudice in their cases because of the Law Society’s decision.

This petition is addressed to the Law Society and the Scottish Legal Aid Board.

It is important that you fulfil your roles correctly.

Overturn your decision to stop Legal Spark doing legal aid work, remedy the mistake you have made and apologise. This is the only way you can restore public trust and continue to say you act in the public interest.

Allow Legal Spark, and their clients the opportunity to continue to work together for the public interest and tackle the horrors faced by disabled people on a daily basis.
How it will be delivered

Signatures to this petition will be emailed, delivered in person, or a press conference will be arranged.

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