Benefit claimants twice as likely to experience multiple legal problems, according to MoJ study

People receiving means-tested benefits were twice as likely to experience multiple legal problems as those who did not, according to new research by the Ministry of Justice. It also found that almost one in four black and minority ethnic adults received no help in relation to their legal problems compared with 15% of white adults.

The survey, which drew on telephone interviews taking place between November 2014 and March 2015 with more than 10,000 people about their legal problems, found that people in work were almost twice as likely as the unemployed to receive legal help.

The Legal Problem Resolution Survey measures people’s experiences of ‘everyday problems that may have a legal solution through the civil courts or tribunals’ including landlord, work, consumer, welfare benefits and relationship disputes.

The research follows in a series of surveys starting with the 1997 landmark Paths to Justice survey which have helped shape legal aid policy. It was that research that highlighted the phenomenon of ‘problem clusters’ – in other words, that problems tend to be experienced ‘simultaneously or in sequence by the same person’. That finding provided the evidence base for New Labour’s plans for a network of community legal advice centres (Clacs) which were to be ‘one stop shops’.

According to the Law Society, the publication of the survey was scheduled for early 2016 but now follows the announcement by justice minister Oliver Heald of a green paper on legal support – see here. Whilst the minister said that legal aid was ‘a fundamental part of our justice system’, he went on to say: ‘The Government’s reform programme will deliver a justice system that is more accessible to the public. It aims to support people in resolving their disputes using simpler, modern procedures…. . We will also make sure that the provision of legal support is updated to reflect the new way in which the justice system will work.’

The MoJ study concludes that the findings ‘suggest that adults vulnerable to disadvantage are more likely to experience problems, and so could benefit from some targeted support’. ‘More work is however needed to explore what support would be most useful, as the findings did not illuminate what works best in helping adults to successfully resolve their legal problems, with little variation by the resolution strategies or advice obtained,’ it said.

‘Being able to access and understand information about possible options is an important influence in how people try to resolve their legal problems,’ it continued. ‘Individual capability and confidence are also important, with some people able to fully understand the available resolution options, and therefore able to either handle their problems using only self-help sources or know what kind of professional help would be suitable and know when and how to access it. Conversely, others with lower levels of legal capability and confidence may be discouraged from trying to resolve their problem if they are unable to access or understand relevant information, advice or help.’

Respondents were asked whether they had experienced legal problems in the 18 months prior to the interview. Almost one third (32%) reported that they had experienced at least one.

There were differences according to age group, those aged 25 years and 44 were most likely to experience a problem (42%) compared to 11% for those aged 75 years plus. BME adults were more likely to experience at least one legal problem than white adults (38% compared with 31%); as were adults with a long-standing illness or disability (40% compared with 31% and 27% respectively); and the unemployed (46% compared with 36% amongst the working population). People receiving means-tested state benefits were twice as likely to experience four or more problems (39%) than those not receiving state benefits (19%).

Only one in 10 respondents who received help from a law firm and some help paying were legally aided. This compared to 26% where an insurer had paid; 19% where the case had been funded by a ‘no win no fee’ agreement; and 11% where ‘a relative, friend or employer’ had paid.

Slightly more than half of respondents (52%) who made a claim to a court or tribunal themselves received help from a lawyer. As noted earlier, almost one in four (24%) of BME adults did not obtain any help in relation to a legal problem compared with 15% of white adults. Respondents in work were almost twice as likely as unemployed adults to obtain ‘formal legal help’ (13% compared with 7%).

Those who received legal or professional help most often received that from a solicitors’ firm (26%), followed by Citizens Advice (18%).

Only about four out of 10 respondents (39%) obtained any legal help. Of those that did not, the study noted that ‘very few’ reported that they were unable to (6%). The reasons given were that they did not need help (28%); the problem was not important enough (22%); the problem resolved without the need for advice (20%); or because of cost (16%).



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

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