A single helpline to act as ‘a safety net’ for those who can not find legal help and a £100m national advice fund, are likely to be two of more eye-catching recommendations of the Low Commission on the Future of Advice and Legal Support reports Jon Robins.
Delivering the keynote address at this week’s ‘Surviving LASPO’ LegalVoice conference, Lord Colin Low outlined the current thinking of his group. The peer told delegates at the sold out event that his commission would not be ‘seeking to restore the status quo’ and that reversing £105 million cuts in social welfare law was ‘neither practical nor even desirable’. ‘Instead we will be seeking if, not exactly to start with a clean sheet, but at least to take a comprehensive look at the system as a whole rather than tinkering,’ Lord Low said.
- Thanks to Allen & Overy for providing the venue and catering. We are also very grateful for our sponsors Lexacom, DG legal, MD Communications, DPS Software and Playne Design.
- The day included a series of practical workshops including the following sessions: ‘Pro bono and using volunteers‘; ‘Charging for your services‘; ‘Legal Aid Agency audits‘; ‘Making legal aid housing pay‘; ‘Using digital technology‘; ‘Getting you legal aid bills paid in full‘; ‘Working with non-advice agencies‘; ‘Exceptional funding‘; ‘Finding new sources of funding‘; and ‘SRA regulation‘. Thanks to all our speakers.
- The conference was a sell out. Out of 44 feedback questionnaires received, 30 rated the conference ‘excellent’ and 13 rated the conference ‘good’.
- Book your place for the Leeds ‘Surviving LASPO’ conference HERE.
Lord Willy Bach finished the day with a typically blistering attack on the government. He argued that LASPO, part one, fell into that ‘rare category of government measure that just cannot be accepted’.
‘Some measures are just so stupid, so irrational, so disastrous in their effects upon our fellow citizens’ lives; so bad for our country’s reputation, particularly its legal systems; and so unfair on those that have the least, that those measures deserve to be fought.’
Lord Willy Bach
In particular, the former justice minister dismissed the government’s proposal of a residence test as ‘a political dog whistle – nothing more, nothing less’. ‘If it comes in, it will be a shameful part of the British legal system,’ he said.
‘We want advice to be seen as an integral part of tackling disadvantage with “legal capability” having an equivalent importance to “financial literacy”,’ Lord Low told delegates at the sold out conference which took place at the international law firm Allen & Overy. The aims of the Low Commission, run by the Legal Action Group, are to examine the impact of the legal aid cuts and develop a strategy to help ensure public access to justice. It reports in December.
‘We want a system that recognises that people experience problems in clusters with the importance of early action,’ Low continued. ‘We want providers to address clients’ needs holistically rather than in silos, who co-operate to provide a seamless service and who recognise the potential of new technology not just to reduce cost but to provide information in innovative ways such as smart phone apps.’
‘Instead of this we have £105 million of legal aid cuts being visited upon the not-for-profit sector, and the same again in cuts to local authority funding – and a legal aid system that compartmentalises issues into matter starts and small contracts rather than providing a comprehensive service,’ Low continued. All of which meant ‘an absence of strategic planning and management’ in the sector.
Lord Low acknowledged that one of the commission’s aims – reporting on the impact of the cuts – was proving difficult. ‘I’m not sure how much hard evidence we are going to get,’ he said; adding that it was ‘a downside to reporting so soon after the cuts came in’.
Whilst the peer made it clear the Commission would not be seeking to reverse the £105 million cuts, he said his group was considering recommending that the Ministry of Justice established a national advice and legal support fund of £50 million a year administered by the Big Lottery fund to help develop provision and that 90% of this fund should be used to fund local provision and 10% national initiatives. He argued that a further £50 million a year could come by matching funding from national and local sources of funding including NHS clinical commissioning groups, housing associations, money advice service funding (‘for example, a levy on payday loan companies’), charities trusts and foundations. He also said that it could include contributions from the legal profession including the proceeds of dormant funds held by solicitors in client accounts and unpaid damages from successful collective actions against cartels.
Lord Low stressed that it was ‘imperative’ that the next government developed ‘a national strategy for advice and legal support’ and that legal advice, help and representation should be viewed ‘as a continuum’. ‘The more that we can do at the beginning of the process the less we may need to do at the end,’ he said.
Lord Low made that case for ‘one generalist helpline and website’ to act ‘as a safety net for people who do not know where to go’. One ‘option’ was for Citizens Advice and the Ministry of Justice to ‘merge’ their advice lines with the help of a commercial partner (‘in order to secure the capital investment to develop it into a comprehensive generalist service’). This in turn could be ‘integrated’ with the Law for Life advice website which the Commission considered to be ‘the premier specialist website’.
Other likely recommendations including measures to reduce demand for legal support, citing the number of appeals against welfare benefit decisions – 340,000 in 2011/12 and of which 35% were upheld. ‘One possibility is to adopt the “polluter pays” approach including penalties in the contracts for ATOS and Capita if the number of assessments they make get over turned on appeal exceeds a certain level,’ he explained. It was an approach advocated by the Justice Select Committee.
Low said that there was ‘considerable scope’ for local advice agencies to work more closely together ‘and in some cases merge’ to reduce costs and for the national umbrella bodies to work more closely together.
‘We would like to see Citizens Advice exercising a stronger national leadership role by working with the other two second-tier umbrella bodies on ways of of addressing the challenges that they their members and service users face.’
The peer argued that there was ‘a strong case’ for local authorities ‘taking the lead in co-producing local advice and legal support plans targeting provision at the most vulnerable’ in conjunction with local, not-for-profit and commercial advice agencies.
Lord Low said that the sector had ‘to accept that there will be less funding for legal representation’. ‘There is a general perception that the advice sector is too fragmented and could benefit from some rationalisation. There is major scope for more efficient working.’
He flagged up Advice UK’s ‘systems thinking‘ approach which looked ‘at users in the round, and not at problems in silos’; considered ‘not just at that the presenting problem but also the background in poverty, unemployment, poor health, drug and alcohol addiction; and which bore down upon ‘inefficiencies in the system from the bureaucracies of the state’. Advice UK told the Commission about their experience moving from a system which could involve a client potentially taking 13 steps before seeing an adviser who could actually assist to a system without a triage approach and with specialist staff on the front line. ‘This can achieve savings of 30%, sometimes as much as 95%,’ said Low. ‘It might seem like a Rolls-Royce service, but it can end up costing less in the long run.’
‘We believe that by investing in a wide range of information and advice many of the undesirable consequences of LASPO can be avoided, and we can end up saving money or if not that using it more effectively.’
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