All the advice you need for a quid.

And just in case one wasn’t depressed enough about legal aid…

Yikes. I’d missed this in the Observer, as I was out of the country. Thanks to Tessa Shepperson again for picking it up and for her considered post.

I share her misgivings about the reported referral rate of the Community Legal Service phone line. 13% seems astonishingly low, as I find it hard to credit that most housing problems or welfare/benefit problems, for example, can be solved by general advice. I accept that a lot of the calls may be low level relatively general problems, about debt for instance, but 13% referrals?

The clients are indeed unlikely to be able to present the key facts and figures to the phone advisor, know what they are or remember the dates. Seeing the papers, any papers, is vital. These are often vulnerable clients, not capable of solving problems themselves on the basis of an outline of the general rules. Even if the inevitably general advice received from the CLS is not wrong per se, it is quite likely to be at best of little use and at worst positively misleading if all the advisors have to go on is what the callers tell them.

I see it every day – the client turns up with the letters and documents, or the rent statement arrives and the matter is suddenly wholly different from that which the client’s first account had suggested.

If the low rate of referrals is cost driven, then this is a culpable failure of the people most in need of advice and assitance. If it is not, then it looks like a dangerous smugness to rely on ‘customer satisfaction’ figures from a customer base that by definition doesn’t know whether the advice received was the best advice.

We often direct people to the CLS often when the firm is unable to take the case. I have taken to asking if they have internet access, as the CLS searchable database was always likely to give people more direct access to contact details for other firms. However, few of the most vulnerable clients have internet access.

We have also recently received increasing numbers of calls from people saying they have been ‘referred’ by the CLS phone line – it turns out that they have been given two or three firm’s details and told to call the CLS back if they can’t help. As we all know, it is deeply unlikely that the first few solicitors called will be able to take on the case, so the CLS should at least give a good sized list of numbers to the poor callers. This also smacks of cost limitation.

As more and more practices pull out of basic legal help, and they will, very soon [1], the CLS direct will become more important for many people. If this is what they do, this is a prospect that brings joy leaping from my breast.

[1] Given that I don’t know many people in the business, the fact that people from four different firms have told me over the last three weeks that the firms are seriously leaving legal aid work imminently is hardly dismissable as anecdotal.

About Giles Peaker

Giles Peaker is a solicitor and partner in the Housing and Public Law team at Anthony Gold Solicitors in South London. You can find him on Linkedin and on Twitter. Known as NL round these parts, and still is Nearly Legal on Google +.
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