Early Legal Advice

A long-awaited government pilot on early legal advice has been described as a ‘lost opportunity’ to demonstrate the positive impact of legal aid.

Nearly four years after committing to piloting legal aid for early advice in social welfare law, the government is piloting the scheme in Manchester and Middlesbrough. However, secondary legislation reveals a three-hour limit on the housing, debt and welfare advice that can be provided to each client. Chris Minnoch, chief executive of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, told the Gazette that the three-hour cap was arbitrary, artificial and does not reflect what clients require. ‘Not only does it limit the ability of providers to give the type of help clients need, it limits the data that is going to be collected. This pilot is about collecting useful data that demonstrates the value of early intervention. You cannot get those results if providers are hamstrung by an arbitrary limit,’ he said.

Legal aid providers will be asked to tick three outcomes that best apply to their case. These include ‘client advised and has a better understanding of their problem’, ‘client has been referred to another provider or external service’, ‘client has a plan or strategy for dealing with their problem, independently’, ‘some action has been taken with, or on behalf of, the client’ and ‘some client milestone was achieved’. Further explanatory guidance states that action taken on behalf of the client could be, for instance, an initial response to forms or letters to help challenge decisions, organising a health report, launching an appeal or submitting an application for a benefit appeal at the upper tribunal.

Milestones could include affordable payment arrangements negotiated on behalf of the client or the client securing an explanation or apology. An application to write off debt, completing a single household budget or advising the client to take the case to court are suggested examples of the client having a plan for dealing with their problem independently.

Minnoch questioned whether some of the outcomes can be achieved in three hours. Piloting different levels of early intervention in different geographical areas would have provided more valuable data, he said.

The Ministry of Justice has been approached for comment.