Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Reports from the audit trail ... by Jon Robins

Welcome to the Access to Justice Audit. This is the first in a series of regular blogs reporting on LAG’s new project. You can read more about the audit at www.lag.org.uk/justiceaudit. The big idea is to talk to the 'users' of legal services - in other words, your clients or those people unlucky enough to fall through the cracks and have little or no access to legal advice. We want to talk to ordinary people about their experiences of the legal system.

Huge amounts of energy and passion have been spent in recent years arguing over the best ways to reform legal aid and secure access to justice. Perhaps, from a practitioner's point of view, that has been something of an exercise in futility. We shall not dwell on Jack Straw’s recent comments on how it might be 'wise to reconsider' pay expectations.

LAG takes the view that the client voice hasn’t been heard enough in the debate. This project seeks to provide a platform for ordinary people to have their say.

The Access to Justice Audit is also a year in the life of the civil justice system. As you probably won’t need reminding, 2009 is the 60th anniversary of legal aid. It is also the year when increasing numbers of casualties of our failing economy will need effective help as they lose jobs and homes. The courts are where the victims of the credit crunch meet the unsympathetic forces of officialdom.

Is our system of publicly-funded law up to the challenge?

That’s what we want to find out. Over the last few weeks LAG has hit the road. You can check out a film about my visit to Dover talking to homeowners facing repossession action and Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB) advisers (www.guardian.co.uk/money/2009/mar/11/legal-aid-justice-gap). The Guardian has launched a series based on the audit which will feature films, podcasts and articles. The first film features an interview with Jacqui O’Carroll, legal services manager at Shepway CAB. The last time LAG spoke to Jacqui (May 2008 Legal Action 7) the credit crunch was taking its grip. She vividly described what was at stake on repossessions day at the local county court where she runs the advice desk (‘Homeowners arrive unsure of what’s going on, totally ill-informed, and prepared to lose their home because they think there’s no alternative …’).

At that point, the Legal Services Commission (LSC) funded 94 advice services out of a total of 230 county courts. LAG campaigned for proper access to advice in every court. We argued that it was absolutely critical that homeowners received proper independent advice when it appeared that many were unnecessarily losing their homes because of ignorance of their legal rights, and often when they were being misled by lenders. If legal aid should do anything, surely it should do that?

The LSC now tells us that there is a housing advice desk for every repossession hearing. According to the stats, some 150,000 homeowners faced repossession hearings last year. The LSC claims that in the last six months of 2008 22,658 homeowners were advised by such services in court before possession hearings. An impressive response (never let it be said that LAG doesn’t give credit where it’s due …).

The first stop on the audit trail last month was the National Debtline (NDL) call centre in Birmingham. For many it’s the frontline of the credit crunch. The service is outside of legal aid; funding is split between the government and the credit industry. Advisers reckon the average level of debt is about £30,000 spread over credit cards. It takes a lot to shock them. They took one call from an independent financial adviser owing £255,000 on credit cards with his wife. The NDL offers what it calls ‘assisted self-help’ to callers. Their relief as they realise there are ways of dealing with debt is a powerful reminder about the effectiveness of telephone advice.

But it only goes so far. How does the NDL go about meeting demand? Paul Mullins, the charity's chief executive, reports that currently about 1,600 people a day try to get through. ‘We are currently staffed to answer about 800,’ he reports.

What about demand for face-to-face services? A few days ago I was at Community Links, an innovative charity in Newham, East London, which runs a big advice service. By the time I arrived at 8.30am there was already a queue of 40 people waiting for help. It would have been fascinating to see Jack Straw explain to them that they shouldn’t ‘confuse’ access to justice with ‘physical proximity’ to advice services as he did at the London School of Economics the other week.

The next blog will feature a report on Community Links as well as the new Derby Community Legal Advice Centre.

If you want to take part in the Access to Justice Audit, please e-mail: jrobins@lag.org.uk.