The Low Commission on the future of advice and legal support launched its follow-up report at the House of Commons today, calling for the government to develop a national advice strategy. Lord Colin Low of Dalston, the chair of the independent Commission, said he hoped to get cross-party support for the key recommendations from the report so that the next government can take steps to tackle the ‘advice deficit’.
Addressing an audience of Parliamentarians and lawyers, Lord Low said ‘the advice deficit has widened significantly’ since the Commission’s first report in January 2014 due to the impact of funding reforms in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (‘LASPO’). Lord Low referred to the falling numbers of clients helped by Citizens Advice Bureaux, the rise in unrepresented parties in the family courts and the increased demand for food banks which is overwhelmingly driven by ‘failures, delays and sanctions in the benefits system’.
The first report by the Low Commission, Tackling the Advice Deficit, recommended that the next government develop a national strategy for advice and legal support for 2015-2020, a national advice and legal support fund of £50m per year and called for greater public legal education.
The key recommendations of the follow-up report, Getting it Right in Social Welfare Law, include:
· The Ministry of Justice should bring forward the review of LASPO;
· The Ministry of Justice should undertake a cost-benefit analysis of funding independent duty specialist advice schemes;
· The Department for Work and Pensions should be required to make a strategic contribution to the national advice and legal support fund;
· Health and social care commissioners should always ensure that their plans include social welfare advice and legal support provision;
· Local authorities should work with the advice sector to co-produce ten-year local advice and legal support plans; and
· The next government should develop a national strategy for advice and legal support.
The full report is available here.
Lord Low spoke about the ‘great deal of evidence which suggests that early access to legal advice saves the state money’. He also referred to the findings of research by Young Legal Aid Lawyers concerning the impact of legal aid cuts on MPs’ advice surgeries. Our report, Nowhere else to turn, found that 38.4% of casework for MPs’ constituents involved legal issues and 71.1% of MPs said they needed to refer constituents for legal advice.
However, after the implementation of LASPO, 86% of respondents to YLAL’s follow-up report noted an increase in demand for advice, mostly in relation to housing, debt and welfare benefits, and over 50% indicated greater difficulty in locating advice services for their constituents. MPs responding to the survey reported that they were ‘running out of options’ and concerned about the future of advice.
Lord Low expressed hope that the common challenges faced by MPs of all parties ‘will be a spur to cross-party action during the next Parliament to find solutions to the funding of social welfare law’. Andy Slaughter, Dominic Grieve and Simon Hughes then addressed the meeting on behalf of their respective parties.
Slaughter said the report is ‘a superb piece of work’ and said Labour ‘100% signs up’ to the need to review LASPO urgently, as well as what is said on public education. In Slaughter’s view, there has been a ‘destructive and fragmentary process over the last five years’ in which the ‘cumulative effect [on the justice system] has been worse than individual cuts’ and there is a ‘crisis’ in justice now.
Dominic Grieve commended the Commission on ‘a remarkable and interesting report’ and said that from his previous role as Attorney General championing pro bono, he has ‘no doubt that demand for advice remains high and in many cases is unmet need’. Grieve expressed hope that politicians ‘can make progress on a cross-party basis’ if they work together in this area. Simon Hughes assured those present that the report by the Low Commission, which contains many proposals his party ‘would instinctively support’, would be fed into their manifesto-drafting process.