Legal practitioners have long argued that the only way to deliver proper legal advice and assistance is by face to face interviews with clients. With the development of new technologies, this view has come under increasing attack. It has been argued that remote contact via phone or email can often be just as effective and will often be more economical. An important research report on the issue by Alan Paterson and Roger Smith was published in 2014: see http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/face-face-legal-services-and-their-alternatives-global-lessons
One of the fundamental changes made to the legal aid scheme as the result of the passing of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012 is that, from April 1, 2013, in a number of matters that are still within the scope of the legal aid scheme, potential users of the legal aid scheme can only access the civil legal aid scheme through a ‘gateway’. Clients cannot get assistance by going direct to, for example, a solicitor.
(There are three exceptions, for those who are:
- in detention (including prison, a detention centre, or secure hospital);
- children (defined as being under 18); or,
- where the matter for which they need assistance is one where the user has previously been assessed as requiring face-to-face provision, has accessed face-to-face within the last twelve months, and is seeking further help to resolve linked problems from the same face-to-face provider.)
The Gateway is delivered by the Civil Legal Advice (‘CLA’) advice helpline for England and Wales, paid for by legal aid. It provides, for people who qualify for civil legal aid, specialist legal advice, primarily by telephone, online, and by post, in relation to
- Special Educational Needs,
- housing, and
- family issues.
It is available Monday to Friday 9am to 8pm and Saturday 9am to 12.30pm. Outside these times users can leave a message and CLA will call back within one working day.
Clients who qualify for legal aid in the first 3 Gateway categories listed above must usually receive any advice remotely. Clients who qualify in the other 2 categories of law have a choice about whether to receive any advice remotely or via a face-to-face provider.
The gateway provides a two-tier system. At tier one, the operator will determine whether the matter is within the scope of legal aid and will also determine the financial eligibility of the client to legal aid. If both these tests are satisfied, the client is referred to a specialist second tier advice provider. In cases that fall outside the scope, operators are training to inform people about possible alternative advice providers, e.g. in the charitable advice or third sectors.
Where a case is found to be within the scope of CLA, the client is referred to a second tier provider – a specialist who will normally provide advice remotely without a face-to-face meeting with the client.
The one exception to this is that where a client needs legal representation, arrangements will be made for a face-to-face meeting.
Because the compulsory element of the scheme was new, the Government undertook to review how the scheme was working within the first two years of its operation. In December 2014, it published the outcome of this review (and four separate research reports that were commissioned by the Government).
The broad conclusion was that, while there were matters that needed tweaking, the basic operation of the gateway was working satisfactorily,
My prediction is that, as policy evolves, there will be more use of these modes of accessing legal advice and assistance.
The Government’s view is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/civil-legal-advice-mandatory-gateway-review. Annex A gives more detail about the issues within scope. Annex B gives details about the agencies currently providing the gateway service.
The related research reports are at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/civil-legal-advice-mandatory-gateway-research-findings