Developing a strategy for access to advice and support on Social Welfare Law in England and Wales
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December update

December was a busy month for the Commission. In addition to the events summarised below, Lord Low attended the Advice Services Alliance policy group meeting and a number of Commissioners joined a wide range of advice workers at an event hosted by the Baring Foundation. These events provided a great opportunity to introduce the Commission and to learn about the challenges facing the advice sector. We also had a number of interesting meetings with a variety of organisations including Bar Pro Bono Unit, LawWorks, Law for Life and Immigration Lawyers Practitioners' Association.

Launch of the Commission

The Commission was officially launched at Legal Action Group’s Annual Lecture on 4 December. The lecture was delivered by Lucy Scott Moncrieff, President of the Law Society, who asked “Where do we go from here?”. Towards the end of her presentation about the roles of legal professionals, representative bodies and government in ensuring the delivery of legal advice in difficult economic times, she welcomed the creation of the Commission and its role in monitoring the effect of the cuts on the Rule of Law.

Lord Low then set out the background to the Commission and explained that the Commission will be looking at a wide range of issues connected to social welfare law advice, such as: reducing the demand for advice; simplifying current systems; different ways of delivering advice; different ways of funding advice; and, making the case for investment in particular areas. Lord Low then issued a call for evidence on those and any other issues related to the Commission’s work, explaining the importance of gathering evidence about the need for and value of advice.

The Commission’s launch had been trailed in the Guardian and was followed up by other articles in the Law Society Gazette and Legal Voice.

Commission meeting number one

The nine Commissioners gathered for their first meeting on 5 December 2012. The Commissioners were joined first by Campbell Robb, Chief Executive of Shelter, who gave an overview of how Shelter delivers and funds advice on social welfare law issues. Shelter currently spends approximately £24 million each year on advice. Shelter runs a range of advice services through a variety of channels, including face-to-face, telephone and internet. It also runs second-tier advice services, helping to support those delivering front line advice. The main telephone advice lines answered around 70,000 calls per year and last month the advice pages of the Shelter website had over a quarter million hits. As part of the LASPO changes, Shelter’s funding will reduce by £3.5 million per year. One of Campbell’s biggest concerns was how to preserve expertise and knowledge in the sector in the face of the reduction of income.

Campbell’s key messages to the Commission included: the importance of delivering advice through different channels while protecting the availability of face-to-face advice for those who need it; the need for the Commission to develop a sustainable long term strategy for advice that will allow delivery organisations to plan and invest in staff and technology; and, ensuring quality and plurality within the advice sector without imposing excessive bureaucracy.

The Commissioners then met with Crispin Passmore, Strategy Director at the Legal Services Board. Crispin attended the meeting in a personal capacity and shared with the Commissioners his personal views about the legal advice sector. A key theme from Crispin’s presentation and the subsequent discussion was the importance of understanding users and their needs and developing advice that suits those needs rather than services being driven by external views of what consumers need. Crispin also touched on the importance of innovation and greater use of technology in the delivery of advice services and on the role of liberalisation in driving that forwards.

Call for Evidence

Following the launch and first meeting, we have tried to spread the word that we would like to collect as much evidence as possible. If you haven’t already done so, please do take a look at our Can You Help? page on our website and get in touch with any information or ideas that you think will be of assistance to the Commission in its work.

Sara Ogilvie
4 January 2013