Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Posts Tagged ‘funding legal services

Legal advice by not-for-profit agencies

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The impact of cuts to legal aid to the availability of legal advice from advice agencies is the subject of a new study commissioned and published by the Ministry of Justice. Interestingly, the study notes that this is the first time such a survey has been carried out – so it cannot actually answer the question of how many not-for-profit agencies have closed down.

What the researchers were able to do was gather information from over 700 agencies that are still in business, actively offering legal advice to individual clients.

Among the findings are the following which I think are worth noting here:

  • The majority of responding organisations (76%) provided advice on specific subjects, to specific client groups or in specific locations. Only 22% provided a wider range of ‘general’ advice services.
  • Most organisations were well established; 83% reported that they had been providing legal advice for more than ten years. There was also evidence of new organisations emerging as nine percent had entered the sector within the last five years (however this is likely to also include some formed through mergers of pre-existing organisations).
  • The use of digital services over and above email was limited, with only 10% offering online services such as Skype or live chat and just 8% reported offering web-based automated programmes with no advisor input.
  • The categories of law in which advice provision was most commonly offered by responding organisations – welfare benefits, debt and housing – are areas that have largely or partly been removed from legal aid scope under LASPO.
Clients
  • Forty-five percent of organisations reported offering a ‘client-specific’ advice service, of these, the most common client groups were women and older people.
  • Just over half of the responding organisations (51%) reported there were some client or problem types they had been unable to help with in the current financial year.
  • Of these, 62% reported that this was due to a lack of resource, 49% reported that problems fell outside of their remit, and 47% reported not having the appropriate expertise within the organisation.
The overall findings show that while some organisations have seen decreases in funding, client numbers and their workforce since 2013/14, roughly equal proportions of responding organisations have experienced growth in these areas. Changes to the NfP landscape have clearly presented challenges to the sector, with over half of responding organisations reporting that they have made major changes since April 2013 and a substantial proportion expecting to make changes going forward to maintain the stability of service provision.
I think these are interesting results.
1 Clearly there remains a significant appetite from those keen to offer advice services to stay in business and – where possible – to expand their service provision.
2 I am surprised at the lack of investment in IT for the delivery of advice services. I think this is an issue that should be examined further.
3 Now that this baseline data have been assembled it is important that there are regular follow up studies so that we can get a better idea of how this segment of the legal services market is changing.
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Written by lwtmp

December 18, 2015 at 4:56 pm

What is happening to legal aid: podcast with Ruth Wayte

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Ruth Wayte is the principal legal adviser with the Legal Aid Agency. In this podcast she reflects on the changes that have been taking place to the legal aid scheme. She acknowledges that legal aid practitioners have experienced significant cuts in the fees they receive for the work they do. But she also notes that there are still practitioners seeking contracts for work from the legal aid agency. Most applications to tender for work are well subscribed. She also comments on a number of the legal issues that have arisen in the courts, arising out of changes to the legal aid scheme.

You can hear her remarks at:

http://global.oup.com/uk/orc/law/els/partington14_15/student/podcasts/RuthWayte.mp3

Written by lwtmp

March 3, 2015 at 4:58 pm

Civil legal aid – review of the ‘mandatory gateway’

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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

  • debt,
  • discrimination,
  • 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

Written by lwtmp

January 17, 2015 at 1:56 pm

Delivering legal services to the public in an age of austerity

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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/

Written by lwtmp

March 3, 2014 at 11:00 am

Further reforms to legal aid

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At the end of February, the Government announced its latest plans for reforming the legal aid scheme. The focus is centrally on criminal legal aid. The main driver remains cutting public expenditure on legal aid.

The latest proposals focus on three key elements:

1 Reducing the fees paid for services provided under the criminal legal aid scheme. Under the latest proposals, the cuts will impact more severely on more established practitioners (on average a 6% reduction) with a reduced impact on junior members of the criminal bar. The Government has undertaken to review the effect of these changes in 12 months time. There will also be a further reduction in solicitors’ fees of 8.25% which takes effect in March 2014. Again the Government has undertaken to review the impact of this change in summer 2016.

2 Recognizing the business impact that these cuts will have on practitioners, the latest paper suggest that the Government is prepared to provide some assistance to firms to restructure themselves and to develop business models more viable in the new tougher economic climate. This will include providing specialist help and guidance on where further financial help could be available to lawyers who need access to finance to help restructure their businesses. It will be very interesting to see whether this initiative simply gets up the noses of practitioners and makes them even more dissatisfied; or whether there will be practitioners who can see that new ways of doing things could be more cost effective and enable them to make money as well as deliver a service to the public.

3 Potentially the most interesting aspect of the latest announcement is that there will be a review of procedure in the criminal justice system to see ho far pre-trial steps can be taken without requiring the attendance of practitioners in court. This could help to drive out some waste.

Debate about how legal aid will continue to be a battle between government and practitioners. My own view is that there is no likelihood of return to the funding levels that existed before the current cuts were introduced. Lawyers committed to delivering legal services to the public will continue to be challenged to offer those services in different and more cost-effective ways.

For the text of the Government response to consultation see:
https://consult.justice.gov.uk/digital-communications/transforming-legal-aid-next-steps and click on Government Response to Consultation.

Written by lwtmp

March 3, 2014 at 10:44 am