Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Posts Tagged ‘delivery of legal services

Legal support – the way ahead? How much vision?

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I have already noted the outcome of the  Post-Implementation Review of changes to the Legal Aid scheme contained in Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012. While the Government clearly does not want to make major changes to the scheme, the review did reveal issues to which the Government clearly feels it must respond. In February 2019 it published Legal Support: The Way Ahead – An action plan to deliver better support to people experiencing legal problems.

As a paper, it lacks the ambition or vision of other recent reports, in particular the Report of the Low Commission report on the future of legal services. But buried in the detail is a number of straws in the wind which are worth noting, even if they don’t make the heart race.

The Paper starts by repeating the point that the Government already provides ‘£1.6 billion to the most vulnerable in society to ensure that they can access legal aid’. It seems to accept, however, that there are some who – at least in some circumstances – should receive legal aid who currently do not get it. The Paper states that the Government ‘will conduct a review into the thresholds for legal aid entitlement, and their interaction with … wider criteria’. This review will be completed by summer 2020.

In the interim there will be changes to eligibility for some public family law cases, to be introduced in summer 2019.

And, whilst the review is ongoing, the Government  will continue with current arrangements to passport all recipients of universal credit through the legal aid means test.

Addressing the problem that people do not know about their entitlement to legal aid, the Government states that it ‘will ensure that more people are aware of their entitlement to legal support – and will advertise its availability’. The stated aim is to launch the awareness programme by autumn 2019 – dealing not just with legal aid, but legal support more generally.

The Government plans to make some changes to protect the most vulnerable. It will expand the scope of legal aid to include separated migrant children in Spring 2019. It also plans to bring forward proposals to expand the scope of legal aid to cover special guardianship orders in private family law by Autumn 2019.

As regards Exceptional Case Funding, the Government plans to consider, by the end of 2019, whether the process for applying for Exceptional Case Funding can be simplified, and whether decisions can be reached more quickly. It will also consider whether it is necessary to introduce a new emergency procedure for urgent matters to access Exceptional Case Funding.

By Spring 2020, the Government will amend the rules relating to the ‘mandatory telephone gateway’ so that there can be immediate access to face-to-face advice in discrimination, debt and special educational needs cases. (The telephone option is retained.)

The new Paper accepts that ensuring people can access the right legal support at the right time may help people resolve problems more efficiently and effectively. There is research evidence demonstrating how problems, if left undiagnosed and unresolved, can escalate, cluster, and lead to damaging cycles that are hard to break. However, the Government states that there is limited comprehensive research as to what works best, when, and for whom. Further, whilst it is often suggested that early intervention leads to cost savings, the financial and economic benefits of early advice are difficult to quantify with accuracy. The Government’s response to this challenge is that it wants to pilot and evaluate several different forms of early legal support.

Thus,

  • it will work collaboratively with providers to develop web-based products which bring a range of legal support tools together in one place;
  • it will improve the signposting advice and support available from the existing specialist telephone service and test enhancements to this service;
  • it will use funding to encourage the delivery of legal support through technology;
  • recognising that a comprehensive service may offer people an opportunity to support themselves, the Government will work collaboratively with the legal and advice sector to evaluate the impact of legal support hubs;
  • it will pilot face-to-face early legal advice in a specific area of social welfare law and will evaluate this against technological solutions, bearing in mind costs; and
  • it will enhance the support offered to litigants in person.

All these interventions will be researched to assess what is the best way to help and support those who need it, and whom should be assisted in the provision of legal support. The intention is that there should be outcomes from these initiatives by the end of 2019.

The Government states that it will continue to work across departments to help to improve the quality of decision-making on legal rights. It has been noted on numerous occasions that if decisions are ‘right first time’ this should reduce the need to take cases on appeal.

Key to the modernisation of the justice system is the need to ensure that forms and systems are as simple and straightforward to use as possible, and that the courts and tribunals service enables people to resolve their conflicts as quickly and early as possible. The Government wants to generate momentum in this area, but acknowledges that this is a first step.

It will be important for the Government to continue open and collaborative working with experts over the coming years, identifying and evaluating new ideas. One specific commitment is that the Government plans to set up a Legal Support Advisory Network to make use of external expertise, shape research and evaluation proposals, and potentially explore new research opportunities and collaborations.

As a nod to the problem of whether or not there will be sufficient numbers of people entering this sector of the legal services market, the Government states it will ‘support practitioners to join the legal profession and continue to deliver high quality legal support to people across England and Wales long into the future’.

Specifically there will be a comprehensive review of the criminal legal aid fee schemes and structures, to be completed by Summer 2020.

The full paper can be accessed at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/777036/legal-support-the-way-ahead.pdf

See also Press Release at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-sets-out-new-vision-for-legal-support

 

 

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