Labour unveils plan forcing law firms to provide free legal help or lose government contracts

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Shadow justice secretary David Lammy (PA)
Shadow justice secretary David Lammy (PA)

Labour would deny law firms access to government contracts unless they meet a new target for free legal services, the party has announced.

Shadow justice secretary David Lammy set out the party’s plan to create a state-run “national pro bono centre” to support those who can’t afford to hire a lawyer but are ineligible for legal aid.

Labour says the policy would mean city law firms can only be considered for government contracts if they provide at least 35 hours of pro bono legal services, per lawyer, per year.

“City law firms are making billions in profit, while low-paid workers see their tax bill rise and wages fall,” Lammy told the Labour conference on Tuesday.

“This party recognises the importance of the private sector doing their bit in partnership with the public sector”, the MP said, adding that national service would mean “binding” pro bono targets for firms seeking government contracts.

But legal experts criticised the Labour plan – claiming it would not necessarily fix the problem of access to justice for those who can’t afford lawyers.

Alasdair Mackenzie, a leading asylum and immigration lawyer, said the idea smacked of “Victorian-style charity handed out by the rich” and urged Labour to boost the existing legal aid system.

He said: “Giving time free to people who can’t afford legal advice isn’t a bad thing as such, but it wouldn’t be necessary if we had a functioning legal aid system.”

The government has been accused of “hollowing out” legal aid – the system used to ensure those who cannot afford to hire their own lawyer receive help – through successive rounds of cuts.

Barrister Mira Hammad said Lammy’s plan was a “terrible idea” that showed “complete contempt” for the specialist lawyers already working in the legal aid sector.

“Pro bono advice from [city firm] lawyers who don’t understand the area can do more harm than good,” she tweeted.

Labour has previously promised to reverse Conservative government cuts to legal aid services and make it a “fully functioning public service”.

Lammy also used his conference speech in Brighton to call for a “turning point” in tackling violence against women and girls.

The party has previously announced a series of proposals to misogyny – including making it a hate crime, increasing minimum sentences for rapists and creating a new offence for street harassment.

The shadow justice secretary said: “The tragic deaths of Sabina Nessa, Sarah Everard, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman should have been a turning point for change.”

On Monday Lammy criticised his own party for failing to do enough to ensure black men run for parliament. One of just three black men who are Labour MPs, he said the party needs to do “considerably more” to fix the problem by removing barriers to entry.

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