All Party Group on Legal Aid - The Advice Sector
16th September 2015
On 16th September 2015 the All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid met to discuss the problems faced by the advice sector as a result of funding cuts. The meeting was chaired by Keir Starmer, Q.C., who opened by saying that this meeting would discuss where and how people can find legal support and advice prior to any court hearing.
The panel consisted of a number of experts from the advice sector: Lord Low, Commissioner of the Low Commission on the Future of Advice and Legal Support; Baljit Badesha, manager of Nucleus Legal Advice Centre and a board member from Advice UK; Julie Bishop, Director of the Law Centres Network (LCN); Laura Bunt, Head of Policy for Citizens and Democracy at Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB); and John Edwards, Chairman of Trustees at Age UK.
Increased Demand, Decreased Funding
Each speaker described a difficult and challenging environment. They all spoke of increasing demand for advice services alongside significant decreases in funding for their work from both legal aid contracts and central and local government funding. Baljit Badesha described how Advice UK’s legal aid funding had been cut by 90% at the same time as their funding from the local authority had fallen by 25%.
Julie Bishop described the practical results of the changes to legal aid brought about by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (‘LASPO’) on the Law Centres Network (‘LCN’). Legal aid contracts represent 50% of the entire income stream for Law Centres. 10 law centres have closed as a direct result of LASPO, which amounts to 20% of all centres. From 2010 to 2014 the LCN saw a drop in legal aid funding of 60%. As a result, jobs and wages have had to be cut and many clients have had to be turned away whilst demand for services has increased across the board. She believes that the advice sector was portrayed by the last Government as a safety net which would protect against some of the cuts, but the advice sector is now much weaker following further drastic cuts in local government and Ministry of Justice funding.
John Edwards told the meeting that Age UK, which provides advice and services to the elderly, are struggling to find funding, both for local services and for their national advice lines. He discussed the fact that local services could still rely on funding from other services, such as charity shops, but the advice services rely heavily on local authority funding. One effect of the drop in funding has been that the depth of advice that Age UK can provide has diminished. Meanwhile the demand for services has increased because, amongst other factors, people are living for longer but often in continuing ill health. He also expressed concern that the recent increase in choice e.g. for financial services such as pensions has increased the need for good advice.
Speaking about the CAB, Laura Bunt explained described a reduction in their capacity to provide debt and welfare benefits advice along with a reduction in enquiries about employment, benefits and debt. She said she believes this is a direct result of funding cuts.
Lord Low described the findings of his Commission; that in March 2014 the “advice deficit” had widened and continues to do so. He expressed concern that the Ministry of Justice was at risk of continuing with “salami slice” cuts to funding instead of considering a streamlined approach.
Who is the Future?
One issue which specifically affects YLAL members was also raised. Badesha described his worry that cuts to the advice sector are leading to a loss of specialist and in-depth knowledge in traditional legal aid areas of practice, particularly housing and welfare benefits. This worry was echoed during the open floor discussion by Yvonne Fovargue, MP for Makerfield, Wigan, who expressed concern as to where experts in social justice would come from in the future.
Inequality of Arms
Julie Bishop mentioned how the introduction of court fees in areas such as employment law has led to fewer employees taking legal action against employers. She felt that there is now a total inequality of arms which has encouraged landlords and employers to feel they are able to act with absolute impunity. John Edwards explained that, although the Care Act had put a duty on local authorities to provide independent advice to service users, this was not always happening.
What are the solutions?
Digitalisation and Technology
Despite the difficulties faced in the advice sector, the speakers did have some words of positivity and possible solutions were discussed. An increase in the understanding and use of technology was one possible solution. John Edwards described how the use of technology by older citizens was increasing and Age UK is aiming to meet initial advice needs of some clients through interactive online advice in the future. While this would not solve the problems, it could help to relieve the pressure on face to face and telephone advice services. Laura Bunt felt that digital advice should never replace face to face advice, particularly for vulnerable individuals, but agreed it could be used to advise clients on specific situations. She mentioned the use of Courtnav and other interactive tools as being very useful in early intervention and support. Julie Bishop also agreed that there is a place for technology but warned that research in California had found that it works best alongside human support.
However there was some unease about this push towards technology. Yvonne Forvague MP warned against placing too much emphasis on digital delivery, explaining that in her constituency 40% of primary school pupils have no access to internet at home. Bishop added that the digital launch would require a lot of funding and the LCN had had 4 out of 5 applications for assistance with funding digitalisation refused. Lord Low also recognised the problems, saying “for all those better included by digitalisation there are those excluded.”
Attendee Lord Carlile argued that there could be more input from lawyers into solving the advice deficit in the form of pro bono assistance. A legal aid practitioner attending expressed concern at the suggestion that pro bono could fill the gaps, explaining that lawyers carrying out pro bono work were often lacking the specialist knowledge and time to provide the assistance needed. Laura Bunt explained that the CAB use 28,000 expert volunteers and suggested that agencies need to look at how they can do voluntary work in a new way, although she conceded though that it cannot be the only answer. Baljit Bodesha added that while his law centre has committed volunteers, they are still not able to manage the increased number of complex cases due to lack of time – he also reminded the meeting that there are still costs attached to this approach. Steve Hynes of LAG also noted that we cannot impose a London model on the North where there are fewer large and medium firms with corporate social responsbility policies and young lawyers to take on the huge amount of pro bono work.
A Joined Up Approach
A joined up approach from services and departments was also discussed. Laura Bunt described how the CAB have been involved in the co-location of services, for instance in Liverpool there has been a push to link advice services with GP surgeries. She sees a possibility of linking up health, courts and other legal advice services. Lord Low also felt that funding streams should be linked and suggested that legal advice could be linked up with family and health services – he explained that these services complement each other as often social, legal and health issues are intertwined. Julie Bishop added that Law Centres have had to consolidate and develop a multi-disciplinary approach which can work, but explained that it can also be difficult as many centres have not wanted to make the move. Steve Hynes suggested that the CAB should share its infrastructure to assist other agencies.
Laura Bunt agreed that agencies should work together and learn from each other, but was unsure how this can be achieved in practice. Lord Low suggested the MoJ needs to collaborate more with those on the frontline and with other government departments in order to target funding to the areas most in need. Julie Bishop agreed with this but wondered how it could be managed. Lord Low recalled the conclusions of the Low Commission, calling for a national strategy on this issue. Yvonne Forvague MP said that voluntary agencies are trying their best but would benefit greatly from a standardised quality and a more linked up network. Lord Low agreed but suggested that any standardisation and working together will have to come from the grassroots.
Starmer brought the meeting to a close on this note of positive discussion and possibility: the sector should work towards a coordinated strategic approach of sharing information and supporting one another’s development.
With thanks to YLAL commitee member Siobhan Taylor-Ward for taking minutes.