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Think-tank recommends placing legal advice clinics in council offices to improve access to civil justice

Outcomes in civil justice would be improved for citizens if early interventions could be made by 'co-locating' legal clinics located in council offices, hospitals or GPS surgeries, according to a new report published by the Social Market Foundation (SMF).

The non-partisan think tank's report, Right time, right place: improving access to civil justice, also recommended policymakers boost legal aid funding and support policy which would lead to better, more timely data collection.

Participants in the report said the key to co-locating legal advice is to "take the services to where people go, don't expect them to find you".

However, "[joining-up] legal and other services carries a range of challenges, including a lack of resources, weak relationships, and differences in professional strategy, culture and ways of working," the report added.

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Policymakers should have a role to play in supporting forms of coordination and integration for effective collaboration. "They can develop infrastructure and resources that help relevant people to find and get to know one another – for example, collating directories, supporting forums for networking and providing legal education."

The report also called upon policymakers to reverse cuts to civil legal aid, "which some estimates suggest would save the government money by limiting expensive downstream problems".

The availability of support to help people through civil justice issues has been "significantly curtailed" as a result of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2013, according to the report.

The report highlighted areas of law that were largely removed from the scope of legal aid and so no longer receive public support, including private family, employment, welfare benefits, housing, clinical negligence, and non-asylum immigration law matters.

The overall amount of funding is now less than a fifth of what it was in 2011/12.

The final recommendation made by the think-tank called for the collection of better and more timely data, for example, through a biannual Civil Justice Survey for England and Wales.

The most recent official government analysis of the prevalence, nature and consequences of civil justice issues comes from 2014/15. "That was, clearly, quite a long time ago – particularly since fairly radical policy changes have bedded in over the intervening period, not to mention the disruption of the pandemic," the report noted.

"If we are to understand the state of civil justice in this country, to show that it matters, and to appreciate the impact of policy, we need more regular and timely data".

Other key findings made by the think-tank included:

  • Civil justice issues are common: around two-thirds of people have experienced them in the last four years.
  • Most are addressed without formal action or legal support, and many are not recognised as legal in nature.
  • The consequences include: 53% of people experience stress, 33% financial loss, and in extreme cases, people may lose their jobs or turn to drugs or alcohol.
  • Recent changes to legal aid have "substantially limited" affordable help – the number of publicly-supported cases are a fifth of what they were a decade ago.
  • On the other hand, government efforts to move civil procedures online and make them more convenient and efficient have borne some fruit, though concerns remain over the digitally excluded.

The Social Market Foundation (SMF) is a non-partisan think tank. It conducts research looking at a wide range of economic and social policy areas, focusing on economic prosperity, public services and consumer markets.

Adam Carey

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