A cut too far: RCJ’s CAB under threat

The day before I am due to meet with Alison Lamb and Rebecca Scott of the Royal Courts of Justice’s citizens advice bureau, the LSC writes to them to inform as of the end of March it will pull the plug on the CLS grant, writes Jon Robins.

It’s worth £250,000 to the bureau and is vital for a unique service that provides a lifeline to many thousands of litigants-in-person (or self-represented litigants as they have been rebranded) ever year. The last time I wrote about the RCJ’s CAB in 2011, it dealt with 10,000 people but that number shot up to 19,552 last year. This is before the cuts kick in on April 1st, the day after the grant is axed.

‘The Ministry of Justice has the responsibility for self-represented litigants (SRLs),’ begins Alison Lamb, director of the RCJ’s CAB. ‘At a time when their numbers are to increase beyond belief, it seems foolish to put the organisation with the expertise and skills at working with that cohort of people at risk.’

LASPO cuts
The other two organizations that will lose funding (worth a total of £655,317) are the Advice Services Alliance and the Law Centres Network. According to the Legal Services Commission (LSC), following a consultation and ‘in light of the future impacts of LASPO on legal aid, the intense financial pressures on the legal aid budget and the priorities of the Legal Aid Agency’, it has taken the decision to end the grants next month. The LSC ‘must focus its resources’ and the ‘best way… is through funding individual acts of assistance to eligible clients directly through our contracted provision’.

As of April the LSC is subsumed into the Ministry of Justice. It remains to be seen how the MoJ will honor its responsibility to SRLs. ‘For the avoidance of doubt there are no current plans for further grant funding rounds,’ the LSC added in its letter.

‘We know that we save the courts time. We know judges appreciate us. We know the clients do too,’ says Lamb. ‘It’s is a relatively small amount of money.’ The bureau has applied to the MoJ’s transition fund for £350,000 over 2 years – only 25% can be used for the provision of direct services.

A specialist service
The service was set up 1978 set up by Lord Elwyn-Jones, the then Lord Chancellor to assist litigants-in-person and the CLS grant has existed in one form or another since 1986. In 2005 some 19 providers (including Citizens Advice, Shelter, and the Public Law Project) were dropped leaving only the three organisations to provide expert specialist support.

The RCJ CAB receives funding from a number of different sources: for example, the Money Advice Service covers a bankruptcy and debt service; the Ministry of Justice pays for a miscarriage of justice project; Islington Council funds Islington CAB (which falls under the RCJ CAB’s remit); and the John Ellerman Foundation funds a family lawyer. The bureau has just applied for a housing contract with the Legal Services Commission. But the £250,000 represents around 25% of the bureau’s total budget (and far more of that part of the service aimed at those unlucky enough not be able to find or afford a lawyer).

In short, the CLS Grants funding is critical to the service for SRLs which is backed by seven City firms providing in the region of £50,000. The bureau also represents a huge pro bono initiative with some 170 lawyers on an advice rota backed by 60 firms and a further 40 family lawyers.

The service had 4,188 contacts (including interviews, letters, emails, and advice over the phone) in 2010/11 and 12,328 in 2011/12 – the figures include both civil and family.

One reason for my visit to the bureau last week was to learn more about an online case management tool – called CourtNav and backed by the City firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer (the most generous of the firms that finance the CAB)- in what Lamb calls ‘a different form of pro bono corporate support’. The project is also at risk because of the cut in funding.

It is just the kind of innovative project urgently needed to assist a new post-LASPO generation of SRLs to cope with life after legal aid.

So what does the funding cut mean for the SRL service? ‘In the worst-case scenario, if we do not have the paid solicitors to support the voluntary solicitors – £1.3 million worth of pro bono – we cannot support the self-represented parties,’ Lamb replies. ‘We will then be likely to lose the premises because we won’t be delivering the service. Then organisation then completely closes.’

Access to justice
So what about CourtNav?  ‘It’s is a way of broadening access to the expertise here at Bureau,’ says Paul Yates, head of London Pro Bono at Freshfields. ‘The CAB has by far the most experience in helping litigants-in-person navigate through the forms and procedure gen but they’re here, on the Strand.’

CourtNav, which is in development stage, will guide users through the legal process under the supervision of advisers; provide advice and warnings to DIY lawyers; assist with completing forms; and allow for those forms to be checked by advisers. The MoJ has also funded the divorce module to the tune of £75,000.

As Lamb explains: ‘We want to prioritise complex cases, such as the people who do not speak English and those who really are struggling to get through the process on their own. We think there are thousands of people who with some assistance might be able to do it themselves.’

Will the City, through its pro bono activities, bail out this much-needed service? ‘It is a myth to think that the City firms will just step in. It just won’t happen,’ says Alison Lamb.

As Freshfields’ Paul Yates point out, it doesn’t work like that. Pro bono activity is built around projects like the RCJ CAB. ‘We have already seen this when Law Centres have folded – pro bono activity goes through a Law Centre – and so when an organisation like Law For All goes down it meant less pro bono help for individuals who can’t afford to pay for help.’

Closed shop
What is the likely impact of the LASPO cuts on the courts after April? ‘I do not think we can quantify it,’ replies Lamb. ‘From April most housing matters will disappear and, in family, it is reckoned some 210,000 received help under the legal aid scheme last year. We are also going to see a lot of people who are self-represented because they have tried to access advice earlier [no longer available after April] and, unsurprisingly, things escalate and end up in court.’

Last year’s Civil Justice Council report on SRLs said that those going before the courts without lawyers ‘faced a system of real quality, but one designed for lawyers, and which as a consequence was and is far too complex and obscure for those representing themselves. It is hard to overstate just how difficult it can be – for the person, for the court, and for other parties – when someone self- represents.’

What’s the view of the bureau? ‘My perception is that, because judges and lawyers are educated in the system and there has been representation available, there just hasn’t traditionally been that empathy for the person who pitches up in front of them,’ says Rebecca Scott, the bureau’s senior lawyer. ‘To the lay person the law feels like a closed shop,’ she adds.

Lawyers often portray unrepresented parties as difficult. What proportion of clients is ‘vexatious’ or problematic? Only a very small minority, they agree. ‘Talk to lawyers and they will trot out their anecdotes,’ says Scott. ‘They will have their one story and it is memorable because it was a one-off.’

Alison Lamb flags up the CJC report criticisms for lawyers being deliberately unhelpful and not complying with the over objective to ensure that clients are on an equal footing. ‘There is also lots of anecdotal evidence of lawyers behaving badly,’ she adds.


About Jon Robins

Jon is a journalist and has written about the law and justice for the national papers and specialist press for more than 15 years. Jon is a visiting journalism lecturer at Winchester University, a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln and patron of Hackney Community Law Centre. He has won the Bar Council’s legal reporter of the year award twice (2015 and 2005). Jon is editor and co-founder of LegalVoice