Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Posts Tagged ‘public legal education

Preventing digital exclusion

leave a comment »

A great deal of effort is currently being put into finding ways of using IT to deliver legal services, whether in the form of: providing legal advice and assistance to those who need it;  conducting various types of legal activity/process on-line; dealing with disputes online.

In general, the modernisation of the practice and procedure of the law through IT is to be welcomed. At the same time, there are concerns that some of the most vulnerable in society may be excluded from this brave new world. They may not have easy access to computers, or the ability to use them. In rightly encouraging digital solutions, at the same time policy makers need to ensure that the most vulnerable are not left behind.

In a recent policy paper, the human Rights group JUSTICE has drawn attention to the importance of ensuring that people are not excluded from the rapidly developing digital legal world.

In their report Preventing digital exclusion from online justice (published in June 2018), they analysed the potential issues that those engaged in the reform of legal procedures need to bear in mind.

The report makes a number of recommendations, directed primarily at HM Courts and Tribunals Service. They include:

  • Greater investment in “trusted faces” in “trusted places” i.e. services already providing digital support and internet access.
  • Considering the specific challenges of providing support to the digitally excluded, especially hard to reach cohorts – including testing Assisted Digital services in regions where the internet may be difficult to access. (Assisted Digital envisages a flexible mix of telephone, webchat, face-to-face, and paper-based support services. HMCTS is commissioning a programme of work to evaluate what types of support and in what combinations works best.)
  • Paying specific attention to highly digitally excluded groups, like homeless people and detainees.
  • Designing online justice services with an independent “look and feel” to reflect the constitutional independence of the courts.
  • Maximising the benefits of the “multi-channel” approach – helping people move with ease between digital access, phone assistance, face-to-face assistance, and paper.
  • Ensuring online justice services cater for the most affordable and ubiquitous mode of digital interaction: mobile technology.
  • Conducting end-to-end pilots of online justice services, learning from hearing and enforcement stages what is required at earlier stages.
  • Researching how people behave in an online environment and choices between Assisted Digital channels.
  • Collecting and making available the widest range of data possible to support research by external experts.

Internationally, there is a great deal of experiment going on with different forms of communicating advice and assistance. There are being kept under review by Professor Roger Smith who, with funding from the Legal Education Foundation, provides – among other things – an annual review of development in the use of IT to increase access to justice. He also writes a blog which looks in mor detail at specific initiatives relating to trying to improve access to justice – not just through the use of new technologies but also new ways of funding them such as crowd funding.

For those interested in how the application of new technologies might change ways in which the delivery of legal services are undertaken, this is an outstanding resource – full of links to detailed initiatives. At the same time, the need for realism in potential impacts is also stressed. It is important not always to believe the hype surrounding new applications.

The JUSTICE report is at https://justice.org.uk/new-justice-report-on-preventing-digital-exclusion/.

The Annual Reviews of digital delivery of legal services can be found at https://www.thelegaleducationfoundation.org/digital/digital-report.

Roger Smith’s blog on developments in Law, technology and Access to Justice is at https://law-tech-a2j.org/publications/

Also relevant is the report, published in July 2018, from the Centre for Justice Innovation, which also looks at public attitudes towards the greater use of IT in the justice system.

See http://justiceinnovation.org/portfolio/just-technology-emergent-technologies-justice-system-public-thinks/

 

 

 

Advertisements

The Right to Justice: Final Report of the Bach Commission

leave a comment »

In September 2017, the Bach Commission (chaired by Lord Willy Bach) published its report on the Right to Justice. The  Commission was established at the  end  of  2015  to find solutions that will restore access to justice as a fundamental public entitlement.

The commission found  that  the justice  system  is  in  crisis. Most  immediately,  people  are  being  denied  access  to justice  because  the  scope  of  legal  aid  has  been  dramatically  reduced  and  eligibility requirements  made  excessively  stringent. But  problems  extend  very  widely  through the  justice  system,  from  insufficient public   legal   education   and  a  shrinking information and advice sector to unwieldy and  creaking   bureaucratic   systems   and uncertainty about the future viability of the practice of legal aid practitioners.

Covering many of the same issues as the Low Commission (which reported in 2014) this report makes the following specific recommendations.

The commission has concluded that the problems in the justice system are so wide-spread that  there  is  a  need  for a  new  legally  enforceable  right  to  justice,  as part of a new Right to Justice Act. This Act would:

  • codify existing rights to justice and establish  a  new  right  for  individuals to  receive  reasonable  legal  assistance without costs they cannot afford;
  • establish  a  set  of  principles  to  guide interpretation of this new right covering the full spectrum of legal support, from information and advice through to legal representation;
  • establish a new body – the Justice Commission – to  monitor and enforce    this new right.

The  purpose  of  the  Right  to  Justice  Act  is to create a new legal framework that will, over  time,  transform  access  to  justice.

In addition, early government action is also required.

  • Legal   aid   eligibility   rules  must   be reformed,  so  that  the  people  currently unable  either  to  access  legal  aid  or  to  pay  for  private  legal  help  can  exercise their   right   to   justice.
  • The  scope  of  civil  legal  aid,  which  has  been  radically  reduced,  must  be reviewed   and   extended.   In particular, all   matters   concerning  children  should  be  brought  back  into  the  scope  of  legal  aid.
  • An   independent  body that operates the legal aid system at arm’s length from    government  should  replace  the  Legal  Aid  Agency and action must be taken to address the administrative burdens that plague both the public and providers.
  • Public    legal    capability    must    be improved through a national public legal education and advice strategy  that  improves  the  provision  of information,  education  and  advice  in schools and in the community.

My own view is that there is a growing consensus that the cuts to legal aid have gone too far. I have doubts whether there will be a wholesale return to the legal aid system that existed before the programme of cuts that has been going on for the best part of a decade.

This is potentially an important area of policy making. However, when considering new policies:

  1. more attention should be given to new ways of delivering legal services, embracing new technologies that would allow more to be provided for less;
  2. greater consideration of alternative sources of funding for the provision of legal advice and assistance, especially through different forms of insurance;
  3. the legal needs of small and medium size business should be treated as seriously as the legal needs of individuals, and
  4. there should be a recognition that there is scope for ‘do-it-yourself’ lawyering.

The Bach report may be downloaded from http://www.fabians.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Bach-Commission_Right-to-Justice-Report-WEB.pdf

The Report of the Low Commission is at https://www.lowcommission.org.uk/dyn/1389221772932/Low-Commission-Report-FINAL-VERSION.pdf together with a follow up report, published in 2015 at https://www.lowcommission.org.uk/dyn/1435772523695/Getting_it_Right_Report_web.pdf

Written by lwtmp

October 20, 2017 at 1:17 pm

Legal advice by not-for-profit agencies

leave a comment »

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.

Written by lwtmp

December 18, 2015 at 4:56 pm

Delivering legal services to the public in an age of austerity

leave a comment »

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

New ways of funding legal services – responding to cuts in legal aid. The Low Commission

with one comment

Government cuts to the legal aid budget are making people who want to deliver legal services to the poorest in society think hard about how this can be done into the future. I have already noted that one law firm has created an Alternative Business Structure to enable it to use its profits from private client work to fund its social welfare advice work. See https://martinpartington.com/2013/08/

To get more general thinking going on this, the Legal Action Group has established a Commission under the chairmanship of Lord Low to develop a new strategic approach. It has recently published an important Consultation Document on which it is consulting until the end of September 2013.

As background, the Commission states: “For many people, having access to advice and legal support on Social Welfare Law issues is central to ensuring that they receive fair treatment at the hands of the state, when in dispute with an employer or when struggling with debt. This type of advice and support is currently provided by both the not for profit sector (for example, by organisations such as Law Centres or Citizens Advice Bureaux), through the private sector (solicitors) and occasionally via welfare rights units run by Local Authorities.

“These services are currently funded by both central and local government as well as by charitable trusts and the private sector. However, changes to the scope of legal aid as a result of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 combined with other reductions in central and local government funding due to the period of austerity are threatening the provision of these services as never before.

“These cuts come at a time when advice agencies are seeing an increase in demand due to a combination of welfare reform, other austerity measures and the financial downturn.”

The aim of the Commission is “to develop a strategy for the future provision of Social Welfare Law services, which:

  • meets the need for the public, particularly the poor and marginalised, to have access to good quality independent legal advice;
  • is informed by an analysis of the impact of funding changes and by an assessment of what can realistically be delivered and supported in the future;
  • influences the thinking and manifestos of the political parties in the run up to the 2015 election.”

In its Consultation Paper summary, the main components of the Commission’s strategy are::

  • Legal aid should be viewed as part of a continuum including information, general advice, specialist advice, legal help and legal representation, rather than as a stand alone funding mechanism; the more we can do at the beginning of this spectrum, the less we should have to do at the end.
  • By reducing demand, taking early action and simplifying the legal system it will be possible to reduce some of the need for advice and legal support.
  • For those who can afford to pay, affordable advice and legal support should be more accessible and the routes into it much better communicated and understood.
  •  People with pressing problems need a simple and effective way of accessing good advice, without hurdles or confusion. Much basic provision can be developed using a combination of public legal education, national telephone helplines and websites, local advice networks and specialist support for front line advice agencies.
  •  More in-depth and intense support should be targeted at those most in need.
  • Ensuring the quality of all levels of service provision must be a high priority
  •  We would like to see a more open and collaborative advice sector. There is considerable scope for local advice agencies to work more closely together and in some cases even to merge. We would also like to see the national advice services umbrella bodies work more closely together and share their resources and experience more widely
  • The importance of advice and legal support on social welfare law to people’s lives, coupled with challenges to its continued provision and additional costs to government that are likely to result if no action is taken, makes it imperative that the next UK Government develops a National Strategy for Advice and Legal Support in England for 2015-20 and that the Welsh Government develops a similar strategy for Wales
  •  Local authorities should co-produce or commission local advice and legal support plans in conjunction with local not-for-profit and commercial advice agencies; these plans should review the services available, including helplines and websites, whilst targeting face to face provision to ensure that it reaches the most vulnerable and ensuring some resources are available for legal representation where it is most needed, to supplement the reduced scope of legal aid
  • We estimate that currently, post the implementation of the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), there is about £400m per year available to fund advice and legal support services- mainly coming from local authorities, the Money Advice Service and the legal aid that remains for social welfare law.
  •  We estimate at least a further £100m pa is required in order to ensure a basic level of provision
  •  We are calling on the next UK Government to provide half this extra funding by establishing a 10 year National Advice and Legal Support Fund of £50m pa, to be administered by the Big Lottery Fund (BIG), to help develop provision
  • We propose this Fund should be financed by the Ministry of Justice, the Cabinet Office and the DWP, as the main creator of the need for advice and legal support (on the polluter pays principle)
  • 90% of the Fund should be used to fund local provision, with 10% for national initiative.
  • BIG should allocate the 90% share of the National Fund to local authorities, based on indicators of need, to help implement local advice and legal support plans, which should be prepared in conjunction with the local advice sector.
  • We are also calling on other national and local statutory, voluntary and commercial funders to contribute a further £50m pa to help develop provision. These should include NHS clinical commissioning groups, housing associations, additional Money
    Advice Service funding, charities, trusts and foundations and lawyer fund generation schemes, such as the interest on money held for clients and dormant accounts.
  • Most of our recommendations apply equally to Wales, but it will be important to build on the momentum resulting from the Welsh Government’s Advice Services Review published in May 2013.

A final report is due to be published at the end of 2013. it makes clear that legal aid budgets, as such, are unlikely to be restored so that alternative funding models must be developed.

Links to the full consultation report are at http://www.lowcommission.org.uk/Can-you-help

Written by lwtmp

September 5, 2013 at 9:16 am