APPG on Legal Aid - 07.03.2018

APPG on Legal Aid: Early Advice

Lord Low on the Low Commission

Lord Low reported on the findings of the Low Commission (reports published in January 2014 and March 2015 can be found here: https://www.lowcommission.org.uk/) that the advice deficit has widened significantly and that this is not, therefore, an issue that the government can afford to ignore. 

Lord Low argued that there is, in fact, adequate funding available to provide early legal advice, suggesting that funds could be raised from the lottery, the government through the lottery and that the Department for Work and Pensions should be made to contribute to the running costs of advice centres. What is needed is the political will to coordinate strategically potential funding streams. In order to garner political support and government action, Lord Low stressed the importance of emphasising that early legal advice saves the State money in the long term. The Low Commission reports include empirical evidence that the State would see a return on an investment into early legal advice.

Dominic Grieve QC MP

Mr Grieve QC emphatically agreed with Lord Low’s depiction of the benefits of early advice and added that the harsh reality facing public legal services is twofold. Firstly, government funds are going to remain restricted for a long time. Secondly, legal aid does not carry enough political weight to make it a budgeting priority. He acknowledged that the MoJ is in a difficult position and has its work cut out for it (of particular importance being the state of the prison service). However, it is in this context that the argument about early advice and the savings that it can bring are important.

Kari Gerstheimer on Mencap’s legal coalition project

Mencap is a national charity that supports people with learning disabilities (caused by the way the brain develops before/during/shortly after birth) that affect their intellectual and social development.

Research has found that though the Care Act 2014 includes comprehensive, well thought through principles and duties, these are not always met due to a lack of funding. An estimated £2.5bn funding gap is no doubt contributing to reports that 68% of social workers feel under pressure unlawfully to cut care packages for funding reasons. As people with learning disabilities often rely on social workers to inform them of their rights and assist them with enforcement, they are often left unaware that their rights are being infringed when care packages are cut. For those who are aware, specialist community care lawyers are so rare (not least because the work is loss making for solicitors) that often they are still not be able to access help.

Mencap aims to improve access to social care and is therefore attempting to i) gather powerful data in order to influence local and national decision makers; ii) provide early advice with the help of solicitors and barristers working pro bono; and iii) improve legal education by training care managers to spot legal problems and developing a chat bot – an ‘automated legal brain’ which is interactive and can provide information and rights and redress.

Christina Blacklaws, Vice-President of The Law Society

Christina Blacklaws began with overview of the landscape LASPO has crafted, with particular emphasis on the state of housing and family law. She reaffirmed the clear statistical link between early advice and problem resolution; with early advice, problems are likely to be resolved within three to four months, as opposed to around nine months without it. Moreover, one is 20% less likely to resolve the issue at all without it.

She happily reported that cross-party support for the Law Society’s campaign to reintroduce legally aided early advice seems to be growing. Whilst she will not hold her breath in anticipation for the long overdue LASPO review, she does see it as a great opportunity to improve the system. She concluded by stating her strong commitment to the campaign and that it will remain a priority going forward.

Rachel Jones, civil justice lawyer at Justice

Justice’s newly published report, ‘Innovations in personally-delivered advice: surveying the landscape’ picks up where their former report, ‘Delivering Justice in the age of austerity’ left off. The aim was to investigate whether effective, efficient and ethical advice is being delivered through varying practices and innovations across the country. In conclusion, despite difficult circumstances, there have been interesting developments in services provided which Justice believe are scalable. Examples include a lawyer providing early family law advice in a Watford branch of Tesco Extra, the dramatic increase in the use of student-led law centres and non-legal charities such as Mencap and Together for Short Lives, which provide tailored legal services for their clients.

Importantly, there is currently a lack of robust academic empirical research on the provision of legal services. There is no literature on the features of good legal services and this needs to be addressed.

Carol Storer, on behalf of the Bach Commission

The Bach Commission found that discussion of early advice led back to the core issue of legal education. The capacity to identify a problem as legal is essential to knowing when and how to seek advice. Law for Life’s program in public legal education is an effort to help people understand and address their legal problems and thereby diminish consequences such as a loss of income and stress. The Bach Commission found that Ofsted had no oversight of legal education in schools, which poses the question of whether this should be incorporated into measures.

She concluded by mourning the late Sir Henry Brooke, a tireless campaigner for access to justice and invaluable member of the Bach Commission.

Questions from the floor    

Members of the audience steered the discussion in a number of interesting and important directions. Discussion of the move towards online provision of legal services – both by the government via digital tribunals and by the advice sector. Christina Blacklaws stated that technology cannot be looked to as a panacea. Rachel Jones agreed, but noted that whilst the CAB had around 43 million visits to its website last year it only had the capacity to attend less than three million people in person. As well as returning to the issue of garnering robust research and empirical data, the audience raised the issue of legal aid in the media. This induced considerable interest from the panel and the idea of basing a future meeting on the topic was mooted.