APPG highlights priority of early advice
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Marc Bloomfield
A meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Legal Aid on 7 March 2018 focused on the crucial role of early advice. Chaired by Karen Buck MP, the group heard from speakers across the parliamentary, legal services and charity spectrums.
Lord Low spoke of the triple strategic value of providing advice at the earliest stages, before complexity and costs mount: it makes ‘the individual more resilient, reduces dependence on services further down the line, and provides cost savings that no government can afford to ignore’. Between 2012 and its formal winding-down in 2016, the Low Commission developed a strategy for advice and legal support, and, said Lord Low, continues to press government on key recommendations including the value of tackling problems early. Dominic Grieve MP, a vice-chair of the APPG, said he agreed 100 per cent with Lord Low: it had been obvious ‘for a long time that early advice is a problem-solver’ and it was vital ‘to grab problems at an early enough stage’. He expressed complete support for the APPG’s initiatives on this front.
Kari Gerstheimer, director of information and advice at Mencap, told the APPG that cuts to legal aid have restricted access to rights. In response, the organisation has prioritised legal education so that people it supports have a better understanding of their rights. It is developing a chatbot for provision of early legal advice, and aims to train solicitors at Fieldfisher in a secondary specialisation in community care to deal with problems that are too complex for online advice. Mencap will also be working with Irwin Mitchell to ensure strategic issues that are ripe for judicial review are quickly picked up.
Law Society vice-president Christina Blacklaws reminded the APPG that the changes made by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) were among the biggest ever to legal aid. The Society launched a campaign in November last year for legal aid to be reintroduced for early legal advice, especially in family and housing law. Research conducted for it by Ipsos MORI showed a clear link between getting early advice and resolving a problem sooner (Analysis of the potential effects of early legal advice/intervention, November 2017). The Society’s earlier report, Access denied? LASPO four years on: a Law Society review (June 2017), made 25 key recommendations to address the issues that LASPO has caused.
Rachel Jones, a civil justice lawyer at JUSTICE, echoed calls for legal support to be made more available, referring to the organisation’s new report, Innovations in personally-delivered advice: surveying the landscape (January 2018). She emphasised the need for further robust quantitative and qualitative research in advice to determine what works well. This would underpin the case being made to government.
The Legal Aid Practitioners Group’s director, Carol Storer, was a member of the Bach Commission, whose report, The right to justice, was published in September 2017. A starting point, she said, was to improve public legal education and understanding of the law, as before citizens can obtain advice they need to know there is a legal matter that may be pursued. Among the commission’s key recommendations was that early access to legal help should be brought back to pre-LASPO levels.
Drawing the meeting to a close, Buck said there is a wealth of evidence and reports supporting the case for early intervention in advice and legal services, but ‘the challenge now is what we can all do to develop the case, including by research arguments’. There are also opportunities for media exposure in a positive way, to counter the recent negative images of legal aid that have made tabloid headlines. That, she said, was a priority to pursue. While the results of the LASPO review are awaited this year (the APPG heard that it will now be later than originally expected; see also Further delay for legal aid review), she also believed there is scope for looking at what can be done in the meantime and what resources can be accessed for this.

About the author(s)

Peter Hay is a freelance consultant.