A disabled solicitor has accused his governing body of forcing him to abandon disabled clients without legal representation, after it withdrew permission for his new law centre to take on legal aid cases.
The Law Society of Scotland (LSS), the professional body for Scottish solicitors, had granted permission to Legal Spark law centre to take on legal aid cases in November.
Following that decision, Legal Spark took on cases from disabled people who had been unable to secure legal representation for their discrimination cases.
Among them was a disabled student who had to quit their university course because they were not given adequate support, and another disabled client who had previously been unable to secure legal representation because they lived in an isolated part of the Highlands.
But LSS has now decided that it made a mistake and has withdrawn permission for Legal Spark to carry out legal aid work.
The founder of Legal Spark, disabled solicitor Daniel Donaldson – who set up the law centre to help disabled people and other clients excluded from the legal system – said the LSS decision would deprive disabled people of access to justice.
He had been hoping to take legal aid cases for disabled people who have experienced discrimination, cuts to their social care provision and other issues.
He said: “My clients will just be dropped. The Law Society of Scotland have left me no alternative.
“The situation as it has turned out is stopping disabled people availing themselves of their legal rights.”
Legal Spark has contacted 134 lawyers, a list provided by LSS, who take on civil legal aid cases and specialise in discrimination law, and none of them have been able to take on Legal Spark’s clients.
Donaldson – who qualified as a solicitor six years ago – spent a year discussing Legal Spark with LSS, which originally branded his plans “refreshing” and “innovative”.
Now he says the organisation is discriminating against his disabled clients.
He said: “It’s deeply disappointing. Instead of working with Legal Spark to find constructive solutions, they have discriminated against and ignored our clients by refusing to listen to them.
“They have cancelled meetings, refused to go to mediation and each time a politician contacts them on our behalf, the Law Society avoid the issue.”
He said LSS told him it made the decision because Legal Spark didn’t meet its precise interpretation of regulations, “despite us spending over a year in conversation and being actively encouraged by Law Society staff”.
He added: “The Law Society gave us their blessing, then took it away.
“The timing could not be worse, as our clients were achieving success in pursuing their claims of discrimination.
“This is direct disability discrimination – there is nowhere else for our disabled clients to go.”
He is encouraging people to sign an online petition and write letters of complaint to LSS.
A Law Society Scotland spokeswoman 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”.
She 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.”
By noon today (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”.
Donaldson continues to dispute LSS’s position and claims that under the Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980, Legal Spark should be allowed to take on civil legal aid cases.
He said: “The LSS have a legal requirement to promote access to justice. They have ignored this entirely. Where’s the justice for our disabled clients?”