Monday, 27 April 2009

Reports from the audit trail … Number 2

Until January, Tracy and her husband Melvyn lived with their five kids at their family home near Derby. The home was repossessed that month on two weeks’ notice and the family offered emergency housing by the council to avoid them becoming homeless. Instead, friends stepped in. ‘At that time I was a wreck. I couldn’t cope with crowds and I didn’t want to go out. My safe haven had been taken away,’ Tracy recalls.

Tracy and Melvyn, together with their three youngest, stayed at a neighbours’ house. ‘We slept on the floor and the three boys shared a double bed with his son,’ she says. Her two eldest kids were accommodated elsewhere, one with Tracy’s sister and the other with a close friend.

I met Tracy at Derbyshire Housing Aid in March where adviser, Gavin Isham, had been sorting her family’s debt and housing problems over the last few months. ‘We came down here to get some advice and soon realised that we were going to lose the house,’ Tracy relates. ‘There was no way out of it. We’d struggled for two years on our own.’ The family’s financial problems began when her husband lost his job a couple of years ago. They were eventually forced out of their home after a lender who provided a consolidation loan of £30,000 pursued possession proceedings. Up until that point they hadn’t defaulted on their mortgage.

When Tracy comes into Derbyshire Housing Aid she has good news. The family has been given a four-bedroom council house. ‘Getting rehoused was a complete nightmare. If it hadn’t been for Gavin I don’t know what we would have done,’ she says. ‘You have to bid for your home – meanwhile my family were living all over the place.’ The lawyer also represented them in court.

Derbyshire Housing Aid is part of the Derby CLAC, or Community Legal Advice Centre. The new service, which won the tender in a straight competition with the Sheffield-based company A4e, has 38 paid staff and comprises Derby Citizens Advice and Law Centre, Derbyshire Housing Aid as well as two solicitors’ firms, the Smith Partnership and Moody & Woolley. Some 7,522 people have come to the CLAC in its first nine months and 82 per cent come from ‘priority groups’ – in other words, the unemployed, low income, black and minority ethnic groups, victims of violence etc ….

Derby CLAC is feeling the full impact of the so-called credit crunch. Under its contract with the Legal Services Commission, it is required to see clients needing specialist advice within two weeks. However, such is demand, the queue for debt work has stretched to four weeks. At Derbyshire Housing Aid, which runs the duty scheme at the local county court, four out of ten clients face possession orders. It reckons that in a three-month period ending in January, some 390 people were at risking of losing their homes. It is a 78 per cent increase on the previous year.
Chris Pass, Derby CLAC’s manager, reckons that this new-style CLAC has been well received. ‘People seem to like the fact that everything is in one place,’ he says. ‘We get a lot of people with multiple problems. If you have employment problems and you have been made redundant, then you are going to potentially have debt problems, housing problems etc. Hopefully by capturing things a bit earlier we can actually alleviate problems more quickly.’

It’s a sentiment echoed by Jude Simmons, head of community work at Community Links when I visit a couple of weeks later. Community Links is an innovative charity in Newham, East London, and in many ways is a proto-CLAC offering a wide range of advice services (although it doesn’t have employment or family contracts). ‘People don’t come to us and say that they have a letter from their creditors saying they owe them £8,000 - can we sort it out?,’ reckons Jude Simmons. ‘Often we cannot understand what they are talking about when they first come in. They don’t speak English, have mental health problems and nearly always lead really chaotic lives.’ Nearly always? ‘Yes, nearly always,’ she says.

In 2008 some 17,000 came to Community Links for help. As Simmons puts it, there is ‘a huge churn of people’ in an area where some 106 different languages are spoken. Newham is the ‘first port of call’ for many, Simmons says. ‘As soon as people make anything of themselves they move out further down the railway track to Barking and Dagenham and further away.’

How are these two very different services coping with fixed fees? Chris Pass reports that the jury is out. For example, he explains that in welfare rights, where the fixed fee is about £220 per case, the average case runs at about £180. But there are ongoing cases which are ‘basically running to about £400 … not that many but they pull the average to £220 or higher’.

In other words, there’s not much, if any, margin for comfort. Unsurprisingly, for Community Links, with its demanding clientele, the introduction of fixed fees creates a difficult business model. It is hard to make them work, explains Simmons, because ‘if we used to get paid £58 an hour and now we’re getting paid £200 a case, cases should be running at about three and a half hours. Often we haven’t really unravelled what clients want at that stage because they don’t even know what their problem is.’

But as Simmons says: ‘We have to make this work though because there are 40 people queuing outside every day. If we do not help them nobody else can.’ By the time I arrived at Community Links at 8.30am last month a long line of prospective clients was already there. Community Links reckons that eight out of ten people that wait outside are eligible for legal aid. However half won’t have the correct paper work and so have to queue again.

Last autumn students conducted a research project interviewing those waiting. The results were surprising. Apparently, people didn’t complain about the length of the wait, or having to suffer the cold outside or even the lack of privacy in giving personal details at a crowded reception. ‘They wanted magazines, toys for the children, and space for the buggies,’ reports Simmons. ‘People are in such need that they are prepared to wait all day.’

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Poorer areas miss out on extra legal aid cash

LAG has published an analysis of the Legal Services Commission’s (LSC’s) distribution of an extra £10 million for help with civil law problems (see: The figures show that many of the poorest areas in the country missed out on the cash for more cases that was supposed to counter the impact of the recession.

Liverpool, the east London boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets, Manchester and Knowsley are the top five most deprived areas according to government statistics and none of them received money for extra matter starts, to use the jargon, for debt, welfare benefits and other social welfare law work. In contrast solicitors and not-for-profit agencies such as Citizens Advice Bureaux (CABx), in three out of the five most prosperous areas, West Berkshire, Surrey and Rutland were all invited to apply for the extra money. Out of the top 20 most deprived areas only three received more cash while 15 from the 20 most prosperous areas did. Overall the figures show 20 per cent of the most deprived areas got only 23 per cent of the cash, while 20 per cent of the least deprived areas got 73 per cent of the cash.

The £10 million was allocated to matter starts in both family and social welfare law in the last six months of last year by the LSC. The LSC argues that the explanation for the seemingly unfair distribution of the money is due to its ‘indicative spend formula’ which it says seeks to rectify the uneven pattern of spending across the country.

We do not know if the indicative spend formula is fair as it has not been piloted or independently verified. Even if it had been, these figures still illustrate the bizarre postcode lottery that operates in allocating legal aid funds. The recession is hitting these areas the hardest. This is illustrated by the unemployment figures which show that it is the poorest areas that are losing the most jobs. It would seem that they are also missing out on the extra legal aid needed to tackle the problems unemployment brings in its wake.

One of the main issues with legal aid services is that the pattern of provision was largely set over the last 30 years by firms choosing to set up practices, not surprisingly, where there was sufficient concentration of clients to make their businesses viable, which tended to mean urban areas. As far as not-for-profit provision goes, well-funded CABx, Law Centres® and other advice agencies tend to be sited in the same areas, those with large local authorities which have the cash to spend on advice services. When such services are available clients pursue their legal rights, but demand often outstrips supply, as the full waiting rooms of many advice agencies and solicitors illustrate.

Recent comments from the minister for legal aid, Lord Bach, indicate that the government now recognises that these services have been chronically under-funded over the years and do not cover every part of the country. The question LAG asks is does the government have the political will to establish a rational system of planning based on client needs and is it willing to find the necessary injection of cash to ensure that all of the country is covered by an adequate level of services?

Friday, 3 April 2009

Back to the 80s

'Life on Mars' tells the story of Sam Tyler, a detective transported back in time to 1973. The imaginative TV series which has since been remade in the US portrays Tyler’s shock at the 'beat ‘em up, ask questions later' approach of 70s policing. Of course the series is fictional, but nonetheless there were serious flaws in policing methods in this period, especially in the questioning of suspects in police stations which led to many miscarriages of justice. The Guildford Four and Birmingham Six were perhaps the most notorious cases in which 'confessions' extracted in police stations by dubious means were used to convict innocent men. The government is now hinting that due to a looming budget crisis in the legal aid system it is going to water down the reforms that were brought in by the Conservatives in the mid-80s to prevent the abuse of police powers.

Last month, the government published its plans for tendering police station and magistrates' court work, a move much criticised by practitioners. By its own admission, the Legal Services Commission (LSC), which administers legal aid, says that the tendering of the services is 'not about saving money'. As well as begging the question, 'why bother then?', the fact that the tenders are unlikely to save any cash is deeply concerning for the future of civil liberties as the government looks set to resort to desperate measures to control the legal aid budget.

In a document outlining the move to tenders the LSC admitted that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) needed to find £1 billion in cuts from its £10 billion budget and had been considering cut backs in police station work as a contribution to this. It appears that the proposal under serious consideration at the MoJ is to reduce legal advice in police stations to telephone advice for all but the most serious offences such as rape, murder or terrorism. Everyone else accused of a crime will have to pay if they want to see a solicitor.

It is argued by some that civil liberties can be adequately protected by recording on camera all interviews and all a suspect's movements in a police station. LAG believes they would not be protected as in our adversarial legal system the trial effectively starts in a police station and to ensure a fair trial independent representation is essential. What is in danger of happening is the right to legal advice in the police station being undermined as a panic move to save cash and this risks turning the civil liberties clock back to the mid-80s with no public debate.