Communication breakdown: what’s going on with the legal aid helpline?

communication breakdownThe Legal Action Group (LAG) has uncovered a surprising 52% shortfall in the take-up of legal aid cases from the civil legal aid helpline – the mandatory telephone gateway for debt, discrimination and special educational needs.

LAG’s figures, reproduced in the Low Commission report into the future of legal advice and support, show that some 3,586 legal aid cases were taken up from helpline callers in the first quarter of 2013/14 – a figure somewhat short of the government’s own projection of 7,452.

Moreover, calls to the helpline actually fell in 2013, from 35,000 in April 2013, to 20,000 in July. So, why didn’t those thousands of people make the call?

Carol Storer, director, Legal Aid Practitioners Group, said: “It’s extremely worrying. Are those people not pursuing their cases? Are they going to court on their own?”

“There may be a deterrent effect from the publicity surrounding legal aid, leading people to believe they can no longer get legal aid. It’s very difficult finding out what legal aid is available for because government information on it is so complex. LAPG has put together a poster (HERE) showing who can get legal aid for what, and I have already had a judge emailing me to ask if they can have a copy for the court.”

Steve Hynes, director, LAG, says: “This is a big concern for us. The helpline can work for some clients but it’s clearly not working for all. For example, an employment case may actually be about discrimination but that is a difficult thing to establish over the phone. We knew there would be problems filtering cases in this way. If I was being cynical, I would think [the government] want to suppress demand.”

“It can work – like NHS Direct, some like it and others don’t,” continues Hynes. “Unlike NHS Direct, you don’t have the services on the ground. There has also been a knock-on effect from the publicity surrounding legal aid, where the perception of the public is that it is no longer available so they don’t come forward.”

Hynes continues: “If you look at the pattern of legal aid services, the take-up has always been determined by the availability of firms and law centres, and when those are taken away then take-up is reduced. We have also been critical of the way the helpline has been publicized, they should do more to promote it, and it is difficult to get to on the directgov website.

‘There should be a helpline, but existing resources would be better spent by bringing it together with Citizens Advice as one national helpline.’

As previously reported in LegalVoice, law centre staff have reported that many debt clients find the telephone gateway ‘too complex’ to use, and fail to access the help they need.

An MoJ spokesperson point out that the CLA helpline telephone number has not changed since 2004, and since April it has been complemented by an online legal aid checker on GOV.UK which is “heavily promoted, specifically to support clients affected by LASPO changes”.

“The point of the telephone number is for staff to test the caller’s eligibility and direct to potential sources of assistance,” the MoJ says. “The number of calls increased between 2012 and 2013, yet given the changes to the types of cases handled by the helpline we fully expected that the numbers of callers to the service would decrease as people make use of the online checker, accessible 24/7. “We have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world at around £2 billion every year. We make to tough choices in reforming legal aid to make the savings we have no choice but to find. Our reforms ensure legal aid remains sustainable, and available to those most in need of a lawyer.”

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