Developing a strategy for access to advice and support on Social Welfare Law in England and Wales
Email Tel. 020 7833 7423

Where now, what next - the academics' take

Last week saw the gathering of experts both in the UK and internationally at UCL for two days of research papers, seminars and presentations on current issues in access to justice in legal services. The conference replicated, under Prof. Pascoe Pleasance's leadership, the format of the successful international conferences that Legal Services Research Centre/Legal Services Commission used to run when it existed independently within Government. Whilst much of the output from these conference tends to be of more interest to independent professional social scientists, law teachers and legal data researchers than policy-makers, there is always a great deal of learning, insight, innovation and analysis that needs to be taken back into Justice Ministries and Court services.

This year's conference was no exception, and it is clear that the UK is not alone in its challenges as cut-backs on legal aid have been seen worldwide with similar questions being asked about what is the public interest role of lawyers, and what are the most efficient routes for citizens to effectively access and use the dispute resolution processes offered by civil justice systems. Yet with every new frontier broken into by researchers, further questions arise including about the limitations of different datasets and methodologies. And the dryness of socio-legal scholars research papers seems to scarcely penetrate into reframing the public and political debates about advice and legal support.
Things that stood out from this year's conference were:-
• much acceptance of the principle of the need for integration between legal and non-legal services (eg GPs), including preventative services, but how do you get there?
• several interesting papers showing relationships between legal aid costs/cost-drivers and complexity within legal procedures and fora in different jurisdictions
• the impact of the Alternative Business Structures (ABS) and regulatory reform agenda (post Legal Services Act) has not come through as strongly as anticipated despite ongoing change and challenge in the legal services sector, technological development in the commercial legal market, and the diversity of agents in legal services
• 'fences' and 'ambulances' are not zero-sum gains that can be traded off each other - both are needed
• neo-liberal thinking about more efficiency with fewer resources and better "demand management" now dominates policy-making
• innovation and learning is made harder where infrastructure for development and delivery of advice services is eroded
• debates around whether and how mediation could become part of mainstream services offered by the legal professions and what should mediation intake processes look like
• although the 'legal needs' tradition derived from emprical research has become more mainstreamed and impactful on policy-makers considerations, there are still ever growing dichotomies of thinking between very wide and narrow conceptions of legal need
• non-profit judicare provision models such as highly expert and sometimes conjoined CABx and Law Centres continue to face a highly uncertain future
• structural inequalities play a significant role in navigating the complex nature of tribunal and court systems
• especially given the restrictions on housing legal aid, housing possession court duty schemes are often too little too late fig leaves
• finally for good measure, Steve Hynes also presented a paper on the work of the Low Commission and how the Commission was seeking to reframe the policy debate to facilitate a better settlement for publicly funded advice and legal support services