Call centre justice

The Ministry of Justice is not that interested in research-based policy at the moment, writes Roger Smith. Better in the current environment to stick to prejudice; the elevation of austerity as the sole goal; and stagger through to tomorrow. Hence, no one, least of all Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling, is interested in what anyone has actually ever found out about telephone legal advice hotlines. We are two months away from LASPO Day when face to face advice begins to disappear from the High Street, at least for poor people, just as surely as Woolies and Comet. There is no time left for reflection, let alone reconsideration.

This is a scandal because over the last decade quite a lot of experience of the operation of telephone advice has been garnered.

Fire and forget
The first major study was a major research project by the US Legal Services Corporation, the final report of which was published in 2002. Its findings have stood the test of time. Users like hotlines and find them helpful but their success depends on the degree of help given. They work best for callers who are white, relatively better educated and not divorced or separated. Phone advice is not so effective where there ‘is a family disability or serious health problem, serious transportation problems, depression or fear of an ex-partner or current household member, inflexible work, school or daycare schedules, or problems reading or speaking English’. Furthermore, the best hotlines are not modeled on a ‘fire and forget’ model favoured by those seeking cuts. Follow up calls or letters significantly improved results.

A decade later, we have the findings of someone who actually ran hotlines for low income users but not within a public environment. Wayne Moore ran hotlines for the American Association of Retired Persons. That gave him a unique experience: after all, he was providing services to members who were paying for them (if not much) and not shy of complaining if he got it wrong. Mr Moore was so keen on his work that he self-published his conclusions. You must, in his view, have call-back systems; live bodies responding to calls and not disembodied tapes; experienced staff (‘my view if that the use of experienced attorneys is the best practice’); intake staff well enough qualified to give basic advice; follow up letters; proper casenotes and supervision; and it is fatal to separate the gathering of facts from the giving of advice.

The US has a whole network of hotlines giving advice to what they would call ‘seniors’ which has its own website (hotlines.org) and even a hotlines annual report.

From this, you need to know only one thing, the startlingly honest quote that:

‘Finding a way to measure outcomes – actual results arising from hotlines assistance – for cases closed with advice and limited action has been an ongoing effort and remains elusive …’

This is from the people who really believe in what they are doing and care for the service that they are providing. It is a perfectly acceptable observation in their situation of providing a service that would otherwise not exist. This ignorance is not acceptable when coupled with an absence of caring and a desire just to save money.

There have been a range of other studies in Canada, Australia and the UK. Research by the Legal Services Research Centre found that telephone advice tended to take longer than face to face advice if you processed the data correctly. No one wanted to know that and the centre has been disbanded. There really is no role for research in this jurisdiction anymore.

So, Chris Grayling really does not know how people are to find hotlines after April when they are introduced. He probably does not care that they will be unsuitable for some clients (see the categories above) and some cases (of any complexity).

He certainly will not be interested in knowing that hotlines can only really be used effectively when linked to what the Americans would call ‘full service representation’. Commercial bulk legal services, like Co-op, are finding that telephone ‘front end’ services can, for a whole range of clients, dovetail with centrally located lawyers who can give an individual service without necessarily being in the same room as the client. That is where there genuinely is room to reform service delivery; combine computers, telephones and visual communication like skype; and save on existing delivery. Supplemented by a residual network of centres based in the major urban areas for the irreducible minimum of clients and cases that really do need to be seen, this could have been a bold, positive development that saved money. But, to advance this model, we would have needed ministers with genuine concern for the legal needs of the poor.

The LASPO cuts were worked out by harassed civil servants and green ministers within days of the last election. They will deliver the mess that you would predict. In the end, austerity by itself is just not enough a strong enough concept to be the bedrock of viable policy.

The government of a modern state has a duty of transparency and, in the words of the South African constitution the provision of ‘timely, accessible and accurate information. It has a duty to handle the affairs of citizens ‘impartially, fairly and within a reasonable time’ in the words of the EU Charter of Rights. And it has a duty to provide equal justice. Let’s hear a shout for the US’s Judge Hugo Black. In Griffin v Illinois he said, ‘there can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has’. The political party that agrees with the judge gets my vote.

References: Pearson and Davis, The Hotline Outcomes Assessment Study Final Report Part 3, 2002; Center for Policy Research; W Moore, Delivering Legal Services to Low Income People 2011: Moore; Balmer et al Just a Phone Call Away. Is telephone advice enough? 2012, Legal Services Research Centre.

 

Roger Smith

About Roger Smith

Roger is an expert in domestic and international aspects of legal aid, human rights and access to justice. Roger is a visiting professor of law at London South Bank University and an honorary professor at the University of Kent. He is a solicitor and has been director of the Legal Action Group, JUSTICE and West Hampstead Community Law Centre as well as director of policy and legal education at the Law Society, London, and solicitor to the Child Poverty Action Group. Roger was awarded an OBE in 2009 and received a lifetime achievement award from the Law Society in October 2012

There are 1 comments

  1. I worked for the MoJ until fairly recently and while I agree wholeheartedly with the principle of what you’re saying, what you’re arguing for is entirely impractical. Asking for the tens of thousands of workers trying to handle the vast amounts of calls (at optimum staffing levels we rarely handle anywhere near the total number of call attempts) with real lawyers (with a lawyers wage)? Preposterous.

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