There is nothing second class about good service

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ONLY a few years ago, as Mike Dailly still clearly recalls, not everyone in the legal profession was supportive of the idea of law centres. Why should the public receive this "second-class" service, they asked?

The debate may have been framed that way, but Dailly and his colleagues at Govan Law Centre have proved they can defy such pessimistic expectations.

The centre is at the forefront of promoting access to justice for those living in Govan, with an agenda set by a board of trustees, made up of volunteer members of the local community. Key issues are housing law, debt, employment law, benefits advice and consumer disputes.

Yet Govan has been influential far beyond Glasgow, helping thousands of customers across the UK to challenge unfair bank charges. Its parliamentary unit is self-funding, and Dailly has been involved in drafting several bills for MPs and MSPs.

Perhaps it was not surprising, then, that when the gongs were handed out at the Scottish Legal Awards, it was not only the big firms competing for plaudits. This year, Govan was shortlisted in three categories, and, while Dailly missed out on the partner of the year award, his colleague Iain Nisbet was named a rising star.

Sitting in his cramped office and wearing jeans, Dailly is about as far from the image of the bespoke-suited lawyer as it's possible to get. But his early career shows he was never attracted to firms only interested in making money.

Originally from Dundee, Dailly studied law at Strathclyde University. After he graduated, he struggled financially as a trainee for a Fife firm, and tried to hold down a second job.

"I chucked it after a year because it was so dull," he laughs. "I was in conveyancing and doing wills and trusts. I was in a difficult position because I was holding down another job at the same time as being a trainee, for a charity in Edinburgh called the Action Group. Basically, I couldn't afford to make ends meet."

Dailly moved to the Legal Services Agency, where he spent five years working on issues such as housing law for Shelter, and joined Govan as principal solicitor in September 1999, taking over from Derek O'Carroll, who is now an advocate.

After nearly eight years in the job, Dailly is adamant that the role of the law centres is not only to plug gaps in the provision of legal advice, but also to ensure communities have a say in the services provided.

"Clearly I can say to my board of trustees, 'I think we need to do x, y, z,' but also from the point of view of the community, people can say, 'We think we need to do more on this.'"

This is in marked contrast to some parts of Scotland where access to justice is of deep concern, due to firms pulling out of legal aid work and the emergence of so-called advice deserts, particularly in rural areas.

With the issue rising up the agenda, the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) is expanding the network of Public Defence Solicitors' Offices (PDSOs) and introducing a civil equivalent to try to plug gaps in provision.

Yet Dailly, who was one of the first to call for the PDSO to be tested, now has doubts that it is the right solution, or that SLAB is the best organisation to run the new Civil Legal Assistance Office (CLAO).

"I remember calling for a pilot PDSO, which was controversial at the time. But since we have had the pilot PDSO, clearly the evidence has been that actually it isn't more efficient than private firms of criminal defence solicitors.

"The experience has been that perhaps the best model for providing criminal defence is private firms. I do not think there is necessarily a case for a roll-out across the country.

"In terms of what the board are doing with the civil project, that does cause me concern. I think there is a problem with the legal aid board being the paymaster of legal services and the provider. I don't think the board is necessarily the best organisation to be delivering direct legal services. They don't have the experience."

So what is the alternative? Unsurprisingly, Dailly believes the law centre model should be expanded. "We have got successful models in Scotland at the moment - and obviously I would say this - but clearly community law centres have been very successful.

"The reason why they are such a good model is that first and foremost the lawyers are accountable to the community."

Dailly is disappointed that most law centres are concentrated in and around Glasgow, but attributes this to the reluctance of local authorities to pay lawyers to take them to court. He has also encountered some ignorance about the role of law centres - one housing association boss once branded Dailly "an ambulance chaser".

He adds: "The reason they have not taken off outwith Glasgow is because to make them happen you do need some public subsidy. Typically, that has come from local government, and we hold local government to account on a regular basis in terms of court actions and challenges."

The new Legal Profession and Legal Aid (Scotland) Act will also allow the SLAB to fund non-lawyer advice organisations. While some solicitors have expressed concern about non-lawyers offering legal advice, Dailly is more relaxed about this.

"If you argue that just because someone is not legally qualified, they can't do as good a job, that is a bit of a myth because it depends on what you are talking about.

"For many years, we have had people known as welfare rights officers doing social security tribunal appeals far better than many lawyers, not because lawyers couldn't do it, but because obviously they've not put their attention to it.

"I think lawyers can really do anything. What you are talking about in terms of the legal profession is people who have got a certain degree of intelligence. That then means, by and large, you have a very high calibre of folk.

"The question is, do you necessarily need that high calibre, that level of education, for every single thing? I think you do for certain fundamental things in life - where your children are affected, where your health's affected, your housing, your liberty, and I guess your livelihood.

"When someone is putting your back against the wall on those issues, then you should be able to get the same quality of arms as your opponent. But if it's run-of-the-mill stuff, then let's not be too precious about that.

"The other thing I would say is the reality of the situation is that there are a lot of people throughout Scotland who are going without access to advice and representation in any event. So there are actually huge unmet needs which are not being met for all sorts of reasons, so I don't think it's threatening to the legal profession to try to fill in some of those gaps."

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