Hundreds of thousands can’t get legal aid – so where are they going for help?

OK, so we know that hundreds of thousands of people have not been able to get legal aid since the introduction of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) in 2013.

It’s now over 620,000 per year compared to pre-LASPO levels, and a staggering 74% reduction in Legal Help work. That’s like telling everyone in a city the size of Leeds to sort out their own family law issues, run their own judicial review or represent themselves in court. And let’s face it, pre-LASPO there were significant gaps in advice provision, with big variations regionally or by subject matter or due to capacity. And while I’m not sure that anyone has properly assessed demand for legal advice (pre- or post-LAPSO), I think we can safely say that it hasn’t decreased in an age of austerity, benefit reforms and sanctions, the gig economy, spiralling housing costs, immigration controls…

So where are all those hundreds of thousands of people going with their legal problems? Again, no one really knows definitively. And how could they when the government has tended to use the rather circular approach of measuring demand by gauging the take-up of under-funded and poorly-targeted services?

One place we do know that people are going with their legal problems is their local MP. This is not a new phenomenon — constituents have always appealed to their MP for support with legal issues: my neighbour is harassing me and the council won’t act; my child’s school application was refused; the Home Office hasn’t responded to my letter for 137 years.

A recent study by City law firm Hogan Lovells, which worked with the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Pro Bono, to canvass 21 London MPs and observe more than 300 constituent interviews, found that 89% of appointments related to one or more legal problems. Housing, immigration and welfare benefits problems featured most prominently, and almost a quarter were caused or exacerbated by disability.

The report noted that while MP’s caseworkers were doing all they could, they could provide specialist legal advice and knew very little about legal resources or referral sources. In some cases, the caseworkers didn’t understand that there was a legal element to their constituent’s problem.

The APPG on Legal Aid, supported by Legal Aid Practitioners Group and Young Legal Aid Lawyers, has also been meeting MPs and their caseworkers – 17 so far – and more than 30 local authority councillors.

What we have found mirrors Hogan Lovells’ findings – caseworkers are striving to meet the needs of their constituents, but are overwhelmed by demand, urgency, complexity, a lack of resources and the weight of expectation. They don’t always have ready access to resources to identify legal issues and make referrals and very few have any formal legal training.

This is hardly surprising as there is no prescribed training or CPD requirements for MPs caseworkers, each MP’s office operates as a small, independent business, and there are no uniform resources or case management systems in place (although the House of Commons Library provides training in some areas and quite excellent briefings).

Caseworkers tell us the situation has deteriorated in recent years. LASPO is one factor. Cuts foisted on local authorities and passed on to the advice sector will be another. And despite the mounting pressures on MP’s surgeries and their casework functions, MPs feel duty-bound to provide some form of assistance to constituents approaching them for help. In those circumstances, there is a need to provide MPs and their caseworkers with support and resources so they can respond.

There are a number of organisations looking to support MPs and their caseworkers to ensure their constituents get the right help at the right time from the most appropriate source.

The APPG on Legal Aid is hosting an event in Portcullis House on 1 November 2017 to enable legal advice organisations to engage directly with MPs. The event marks the start of a training programme for MPs’ caseworkers on key areas such as identifying legal issues, understanding legal aid, housing law and welfare benefits.

We are also collating legal resources for MPs and continuing to meet with them and their caseworkers to explain how their constituents can access local legal aid and other advice services. The event is designed to showcase the support on offer to MPs, but will also serve as a reminder that we’re all trying to achieve the same thing — enable access to justice and provide a voice for those who can’t speak for themselves.

We know that demand will always exceed supply when it comes to legal advice. But we hope that by supporting MPs and their caseworkers we will see an increase in referrals to local legal aid firms and advice centres. We also hope to encourage relationships between MPs and advisers in their area, which will increase awareness and provide that vital link which helps to facilitate both referrals and an understanding of wider policy issues. Of course at LAPG and YLAL we are well aware of the significant and gaping holes in the legal aid scheme, the stifling bureaucracy and unnecessarily strict means test – all of which we are actively campaigning to change (see our recently updated Manifesto for Legal Aid for more detail).

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