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Telephone helpline to become the 'single gateway' to civil legal aid

22 November 2010

The “vast majority” of people seeking access to civil legal aid will no longer be able to go directly to a solicitor, the Ministry of Justice is proposing as part of its legal aid green paper.

Instead they will have to call an expanded Community Legal Advice (CLA) helpline, where an operator will, following an initial diagnosis, refer them “where appropriate” to a specialist for face-to-face advice.

Face-to-face advice would only be available where the case was “too complex” to be dealt with by telephone or where client’s needs could not be met, for example because of a “mental impairment”.

The MoJ has estimated in an impact assessment that the move to telephone advice would save from £50m to £70m a year. The cost of expanding the helpline is put at £10m a year.

The MoJ said the LSC believed that 580,000 cases a year could be dealt with over the phone rather than in person.

However, the assessment identified a number of “non-monetary impacts” for clients, where there were “literacy issues, language barriers, problems acting on advice given or an inability to pick up on non-verbal cues”.

In its green paper, the MoJ said: “The CLA helpline will be established as the single gateway to civil legal aid cases.

“In the vast majority of cases this will mean that clients will make their initial contact to access civil legal aid services through the operator service, rather than through a face-to-face provider.”

The MoJ said clients ineligible for legal aid could be referred to “quality-assured paid services” in return for a referral fee.

Calls to the CLA helpline would continue to be charged at the single national ‘0845’ rate, though a call back service is being considered.

The government’s legal aid green paper, published last week, would drastically reduce the scope and eligibility of civil legal aid. It would be removed completely from cases involving medical negligence, welfare benefits, employment, consumer and education.

Private law family cases would be limited to those involving domestic violence, child abduction and forced marriage.

Legal aid would no longer available for immigration, where clients were not in detention, housing cases, which did not involve homelessness or serious disrepair or debt advice, where there was no risk of repossession.

There would continue to be funding for family mediation, environmental and mental health services.

On eligibility, the MoJ plans to abolish the “equity disregard” so equity in a home would be treated in the same way as disposable capital. Legal aid contributions would begin at £100, for clients with assets valued between £1,000 and £3,000. Other contributions would be increased from ten to 20 per cent.

Civil legal aid fees would be slashed by ten per cent across the board and there would be further cuts in criminal legal aid fees, before the return of competitive tendering.

“The attack on civil legal aid is horrific,” Richard Miller, head of legal aid at the Law Society, said. “Huge swathes of a system which helped vulnerable people will be completely eliminated.”

“Some people are perfectly capable of dealing with things over the phone,” he said. “Putting everyone through the same system is a terrible idea.”

Miller called on solicitors to talk to MPs and the media to try and help the public understand what was happening.

Steve Hynes, director of the Legal Action Group, said that, in cutting around a third from the civil legal aid budget, the government would remove 50 per cent of the service.

“Civil legal aid would become a rump service with a phone system trying to provide cover,” he said.

“The MoJ has admitted in its assessments that this will impact disproportionately on people with disabilities, ethnic minorities and women.”

He said the impact of advice services of abolition of the financial inclusion fund and cuts in local authority funding would leave people with “nowhere to go”.

Carol Storer, director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, said Shelter and the CABx had been trying for years to prioritise or “triage” cases and knew how difficult it was.

“Who will make the decision?” she asked. “If it is someone junior they will need lots of training.”

Storer questioned whether it made sense for clients who had seen the same solicitor for ten or 20 years to be transferred by the helpline to another solicitor.

Roger Smith, director of JUSTICE, accused the government of “fag packet” policy making.

“This marks the beginning of the end for the law centre movement and for a whole group of ‘poverty law’ practitioners,” he said.

“I don’t think it will help social cohesion or the Big Society. People have an innate sense of fairness. If people think that society and the constitution is unfair, we’re in dangerous territory.”

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