‘We are having this debate – and not bothering too much about the facts’

Guy Beringer photograph

INTERVIEW: ‘The real role for government in the future is not as funder but as convenor,’ reflects Guy Beringer, chairman of The Legal Education Foundation (TLEF).  It is a role that wouldn’t cost the taxpayer huge amounts of money but nonetheless would be ‘enormously effective’. ‘The problem is though it isn’t happening,’ Beringer adds.

The foundation, which has as its charitable objective to ‘promote the advancement of legal education and the study of law’, was established following the sale of the College of Law in 2012 which left a £200m windfall. TLEF reckons that approximately between 35% and 40% of its resources go to supporting the advice sector.

Over the last 12 months, TLEF has awarded £3.7m of grants to 69 groups, more than double the previous year (£1.6m to 18 groups) and for 2015/ 2016 anticipates awarding £4.4m. A quick flick through the ‘funded projects’ page on its site reveals just how wide its reach has become in the stricken post-LASPO legal advice sector.

A saving ministry, not a spending ministry
Guy Beringer is talking to LegalVoice shortly after Michael Gove met with City lawyers to talk about the possibility of a ‘levy’ on top-tier firms as some kind of bizarre quid pro quo for scrapping his predecessor’s widely-panned criminal court charge. Beringer worries that in the current fractious state of relations between lawyers and government, the last thing that is needed is a new argument with the City over a mandatory contribution.

The former senior partner of magic circle firm Allen & Overy reckons that if the MoJ was to say ‘can we – the Ministry – build a relationship with you – the City – whereby we leveraged your capability and spread it around the UK’, the profession would be ‘delighted’ to oblige.

The idea of MoJ as ‘convenor’ (as opposed to a funder) ‘costs nothing – in terms of identifying and publicising best practice in a range of areas and leading us to a more technology-enabled legal system which actually encompasses more citizens.’

Guy Beringer wants the MoJ to ‘present itself as a saving ministry rather than a spending ministry’. He points to the growing trend amongst law centres adapting to the brave new post-LASPO world by working alongside non-legal services such as clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) in the NHS, and local authority-funded schemes supporting victims of domestic violence or troubled families (as in the case of Coventry Law Centre). Recent research by the Legal Action Group’s Low Commission argued that advice on welfare in primary health settings could reduce the 15% of GPs’ time spent on patients’ benefits issues and could lead to fewer repeat appointments.

Beringer believes that it is possible for agencies to find financial backing for early stage intentions. ‘CCGs will want to know how this works,’ he says; arguing that social impact bonds could be adapted so as to attract initial seed funding from social entrepreneurs. ‘I accept that there is a funding challenge,’ he says. ‘But it is a different one than simply saying to government that it is required to fund this forevermore.’

A legal Tech City
‘Shouldn’t BIS (the Department for Business Innovation & Skills) and the MoJ be creating a legal version of Tech City?’ Beringer asks. The so-called ‘Silicon Roundabout’ in Shoreditch was designated a home to tech start-ups as part of a government promotional campaign for the area in 2010.

Beringer reckons Bristol could make a suitable venue for Legal Tech City.  He recently met with the city council. ‘In these times of austerity, when you go to public authorities your expectations aren’t pitched that high,’ he says. Apparently, the council was receptive and keen to talk about how ‘to use the law preventively and how to fold advice services into broader public services’ such as health.

Four of the city’s biggest firms recently joined forces with TLEF to cover the £37,500 a year cost of a trainee at Avon & Bristol Law Centre. The initiative is part of the group’s Justice First Fellowship scheme which aims to support ‘the next generation of social welfare lawyers’. The law centre’s success at recovering more than £1 million on behalf of people wrongly declared fit for work by the Department for Work and Pensions has been widely covered.

Beringer draws parallels between the ongoing reconfiguration of social welfare law in the wake of the April 2013 legal aid cuts and ‘big society’ and ‘localism’ (‘both perfectly sound ideas’). ‘A large proportion of public services are provided by volunteer organizations,’ he says. ‘There is so much that those organisations have to do to comply with regulatory and procurement requirements; compliance with health and safety; and employment law. Does anybody consider how to resource them to do that? The system will not flourish unless you provide way of accessing that advice.’

‘Somebody has to take responsibility to drive collaboration, rather than saying: “Let’s throw these pieces together, leave it to market forces and we’ll get there in the end.” Otherwise, the number of casualties before we do get there will be large.’

He returns to his theme of a new role for government. ‘There are perfectly sound arguments for saying that government as a central funder of resource is a poor idea,’ he says. ‘For two reasons, it has provided a very fragile basis as the last 10 years have shown; and it is not a role for which government is suited. But the government is suited to convene elements that can help solve the problem and collaborate.’

Perhaps the MoJ would be more a more willing convenor if the City was to play ball and sign up to Gove’s levy?  Beringer does not agree. ‘You have in the City a massive resource – but that resource isn’t cash which is legitimately earned and frequently invested in underpinning the success of the City,’ he says. ‘What you have is a huge resource in terms of administrative capability, technological know-how and legal resource which can be applied elsewhere.’

Under pressure
Is there a danger TLEF’s spends its money propping up creaking parts of the legal profession and advice sector that are no longer viable post-cuts? ‘It isn’t about “propping anyone” up. What we are actually seeing is law centres reinventing themselves under extreme pressure,’ he replies.

‘We can only properly support bids which are working to a goal of sustainability,’ he continues. ‘We know for many of them that might seem like an almost impossible task. They might not be able to achieve it but we are undoubtedly requiring people to take steps towards it. That involves change.’

And TLEF expects the organisations it funds to embrace change. ‘There is no excuse for anyone not to maximise ways in which they collaborate and their use of technology because that simply means resource can go further,’ he says. ‘We’re very happy to help fund the technology which enables that – but in turn they are going to have to undertake to collaborate and be open.’

Not bothering about the facts
A major concern for TLEF is the lack of empirical research underpinning our understanding of access to justice. ‘We are having this enormous debate and we’re not bothering too much about the facts,’ he says.

‘There is a very disturbing lack of understanding about what peoples’ legal needs are and what it the broad scope of offering,’ he says. For all the talk of pro bono somehow filling the post-LASPO vacuum, Beringer points out that the last major research project into the profession’s volunteer activities was a University of Westminster study called Something for Nothing in 2002.

Is Beringer comfortable with projects measuring the impact of LASPO and which might provide ammunition for lawyers to make the case for restitution of legal aid? TLEF is not a ‘lobbying organsation’, he replies, but they would support projects that ‘objectively measure what is going on’ because so little is understood about the demand for and provision of legal advice.

Beringer argues for an update of the old line that pro bono is ‘an adjunct to and not a replacement for legal aid’. ‘I don’t think that is an issue any more. We are a long way past that. I don’t think the government is any more saying we’re going to reduce funding if you don’t do this. They’re just saying we are going to reduce funding anyway.’

 

 

 

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About Jon Robins

Jon is a journalist and has written about the law and justice for the national papers and specialist press for more than 15 years. Jon is a visiting journalism lecturer at Winchester University, a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln and patron of Hackney Community Law Centre. He has won the Bar Council’s legal reporter of the year award twice (2015 and 2005). Jon is editor and co-founder of LegalVoice

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