Delivering legal services to the public in an age of austerity
Like it or not, there is widespread acknowledgement that the funding of legal aid is not going to be restored to pre-Government cut levels. But knowing how to respond to this gloomy prediction is not easy. The Nuffield Foundation has recently published (February 2014) a really interesting research report which, drawing from international examples, offers many ideas for how we might deliver services effectively in this country as well. It deserves widespread attention.
The report concluded that websites, telephones, video communication and other means of digital communication can, if properly used, assist in maintaining access to justice in a time of austerity.
In their report, the researchers (Prof Alan Paterson and Roger Smith) emphasise the need to devise models of delivery that take account of the fact that not everyone can use websites and telephones. They also highlight the example of NHS Direct, an integrated telephone and internet project, unfortunately abolished just as it seemed to producing results.
However the report says that much could be done through:
- Leadership from the Ministry of Justice in maintaining access to justice despite austerity cuts – a positive commitment to helping citizens to help themselves where they can and continued free access to legislation and cases.
- The fostering of innovation through awards, recognition and, as in the US Legal Services Corporation’s Technical Innovation Grants programme, funds for strategic projects.
- Rigorous testing of channels of delivery including the use of dummy clients.
- Integrated ‘digital first’ but not ‘digital only’ delivery as happens in jurisdictions like New South Wales and New Zealand where internet advice is linked with telephones and face to face provision if required.
- Dynamic digital systems that assist a person through a process such as obtaining a divorce, for example, the rechtwijzer.nl site in The Netherlands.
These are findings that fit well with the conclusions of the Low Commission, also published in early 2014.
The text of the Paterson-Smith report is at http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/face-face-legal-services-and-their-alternatives-global-lessons
The final report of the Low Commission is at http://www.lowcommission.org.uk/