The Low Commission: ‘no magic solution’

The Low Commission on the Future of Advice and Legal Support will take evidence over the next year on the impact of the government’s funding cuts, writes Vicky Ling. The Commission will focus on social welfare law covering advice and legal representation on law relating to asylum, benefits, community care, debt, employment, housing, immigration and other areas of public law, such as special educational needs and judicial review.

Chaired by crossbench peer and disability rights campaigner Lord Low, it aims to draw up a strategy for access to advice and support on social welfare law in England and Wales, publishing preliminary recommendations in September 2013 and a final report in December 2013, in the hope that it may influence political parties’ manifestos. Lord Low said: ‘Access to justice, especially for the poor and vulnerable, is the mark of a civilised society. But the outlook for advice and legal support services is bleak, especially once the cuts take full effect after April 2013.’

The Commission has started its work and has already understood that it will have to come up with solutions, not just rehearse problems, serious as these undoubtedly are. It recognises that it will not be possible to put the clock back, although there may be a case for arguing for restoration of legal aid in some particular areas.

Key issues are to find new ways of meeting the need for legal advice, and use language which will make sense to the wider community and encourage wide-ranging support. For example, by charities representing women, older people, troubled families, younger people, disabled people, black and minority ethnic groups- all of whom are potential beneficiaries of the Commission’s work.

The Commission appreciates there is no magic solution and it is going to be important to take a comprehensive look at where changes need to take place, rather than just tinkering with present arrangements. Above all, its recommendations need to be affordable and realistic. Its final strategy is likely to cover at least five areas:

  • reducing demand
  • simplifying or improving the system
  • developing provision
  • funding for provision
  • making the case for investment

The Commission wants to explore whether there are ways that the need and demand for advice and legal support can be reduced, rather than just thinking about how best to meet need. As Advice UK has demonstrated through its research with Vanguard Consulting it is possible to reduce ‘failure demand’ by getting things right first time. A striking example of this is the number of appeals against welfare benefit decisions – 340,000 in 2011-12, of which 35% were upheld. This represents a colossal waste of time for all concerned. Better decision-making in the first place would reduce poverty, reduce stress and save government resources, as well as reducing the need for advice.

Greater application of ‘systems thinking’, involving closer working between those running the system and those giving advice when it goes wrong could improve system design, reducing costs and the need for legal advice. By cutting out unnecessary steps and procedures, dramatic reductions can be achieved, for example in the time it takes to process claims. Similarly, there appears to be considerable scope for improving the Employment Tribunal system, which would make the process more user friendly and reduce delays.

Increased public legal education would ensure that people were better informed about their rights and responsibilities, which could mean less need for advice, and less inappropriate benefits appeals or Employment Tribunal claims.

Where advice was needed, people with a better understanding of the system would probably seek advice earlier. Early intervention could resolve problems before they escalate, thus reducing the need for legal support later on. Alternative approaches to dispute resolution such as mediation, ombudsman and complaints systems, are potentially less time consuming and costly than many current arrangements, and could be more effective for many people.

The Commission will conduct its own research in five areas: Gloucestershire, Leicester, London, Manchester and the Western Bay area of Wales. It would like to hear from individuals or organisations with expertise in the area of Social Welfare Law advice. If you think you might be able to help the Commission, please visit its Can You Help? page.



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