Virtually all legal aid providers have raised concerns about the impact of LASPO on clients, and predict that hundreds of thousands of clients will go without the representation that they need and that other public services will have to pick up the impact. It is likely that in real terms, the cost to the public purse of LASPO will be very significantly greater than the ‘savings’.
Despite a very spirited campaign and significant defeats of the proposals by the Lords, the House of Commons has passed the Bill and we now know the shape of civil legal aid from April 2013, and there will be massive gaps in what is already a creaking network.
At Islington Law Centre, we have been thinking very hard about how we can respond – not only to ensure that we survive as an organisation, but, much more critically, how we can make a meaningful contribution to the needs of low income people, and can attempt to ensure at least a level of access to justice.
Similar debates are obviously taking place across both the not-for-profit sector and private practice, and it is interesting to see different responses emerging.
We are fortunate to have a local authority that has a real commitment to front line legal advice services, and so we will able to keep a level of free service to local people in the areas of law that are going out of scope. We are also very grateful to the trusts and foundations who are supporting our work and to the City law firms who provide pro bono support and donations.
Agency of last resort
Nonetheless, we already have waiting lists of five weeks for a number of our outreach sessions, with demand particularly high in welfare benefits and housing. LASPO changes will take out 1,416 social welfare cases in Islington – 28 new cases a week. This in an area which has high levels of economic deprivation, and the second highest rate of child poverty in England. We have not yet seen the full impact of welfare reform, and are daily seeing more clients affected by loss of working hours, and cuts in their actual rate of pay. We are also seeing a deterioration of practice amongst both private sector landlords and employers.
We know that there are no funders out there who can replace the massive loss of funding and so are looking at new models of service delivery.
Like many other not-for-profits, we are often an agency of last resort for people who are at their wits end and have not been able to get a resolution to their problem. The reduction in community support for people means that we may be the only place that –for example, someone with literacy issues can come to have a letter read to them. We are undertaking a review of our reception and referral service to see what appropriate assistance can be given at that level, in order to meet immediate needs.
We are also thinking about how we can work more creatively with volunteers, and particularly law student volunteers. We have pioneered some very effective clinic models with volunteers being supervised by LSC supervisors and helping clients fill in initial benefits applications, and income and expenditure budgets to assist with debt work. However, funding has come to an end and we are now seeking new funding to re-establish these. Without this provision, there is a real danger that there will be no preventative work and that more and more cases will reach crisis level.
Independent research commissioned by the Council has shown that the cost of travelling to an agency is sufficient to be a barrier to access, and we are running an intensive outreach programme in three areas of social housing, offering debt, housing and welfare benefits advice in community settings.
We have a commitment to strategic litigation work, aiming to work with other agencies to achieve changes in policy and practice and/or to litigate in ways which will have a wide impact on target client groups, and the Refuge Children’s Rights Project and the Migrants’ Law Project at the Law Centre are both delivering very real impact.
We are thinking about new ways in which we can deliver public legal education, and are, for example, forging links with a new Unite the Union Community Branch, and developing work with community hubs.
We have also established a Community Interest Company, owned by the law centre, and will shortly be applying for ABS status. The CIC will be offering paid for services, and will initially focus on immigration, education and employment. We are also considering mediation and arbitration services. We are seeking to provide a service at the cheapest possible price to people who would previously have been eligible for legal aid, as well as reasonably priced services to those who would fall just outside of the limits. We will also trial ‘supporter’ rates for higher income clients who want to spend their money where it will do good (similar to fair trade purchasers).
We are keen to reassure clients that the law centre will not charge them for our time, and so the CIC will be separately branded, and housed in a different office. We have had a great deal of pro bono support in setting this up, and have secured grants and donations to meet the set up costs. We are aware of a lot of anecdotal reports of very poor treatment of immigration clients by some providers and will be working with faith groups and community agencies to ensure that they know that the CIC will operate to high standards and that we are accountable to the wider community.
We hope that the social enterprise will be financially sustainable from year 3, and will be able to make a real contribution to client need. We also hope that it will assist us in retaining specialist expertise in the law centre, as we can share the costs of specialist posts across the two agencies. The final aspiration is to make a small surplus which could be ploughed back into the CIC (for example, to create a trainee opportunity), or could be gifted to the law centre to support our free services.
No easy solutions
We are aware that there are no easy solutions, and that we will need to adopt a range of strategies to even hope to rise to the challenges ahead, but we are determined to explore a variety of options to secure continued access to justice. We are keen to work collaboratively with other agencies and hope to be part of a network of providers, all seeking to work in new and innovative ways, but focussed on real values and gaining real outcomes for clients and communities.