The Law Society and other representative groups have called for a ‘fundamental rethink’ of ‘radical’ government proposals to introduce a telephone gateway for all civil legal aid services.
The impact assessments published with the government’s recent legal aid green paper estimate that the introduction of a sole telephone gateway and the extension of the specialist community legal advice telephone helpline will cut the income received by firms for ‘legal help’ work by 75%, while not-for-profit groups would lose 85%.
The paper proposes that face-to-face advice in all areas of publicly funded civil work will be ‘significantly scaled back’, although ‘residual’ face-to-face services would be available where telephone contact would be inappropriate.
It says the Legal Services Commission expects around 580,000 cases could appropriately involve specialist advice over the telephone rather than in person, saving £70m a year.
Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson said: ‘If the proposal is to use a telephone gateway as a genuine means of triage, directing those cases that need face-to-face advice quickly to the appropriately qualified solicitor and those that can be dealt with over the phone to a call centre, that is sensible.
‘If, however, this is simply a cost-saving exercise designed to fob callers off with scripted advice from anonymous, non-legally qualified staff in a call centre, then this would be a major obstacle to accessing justice and the upholding the rule of law.’
Adam Griffith, policy officer at the Advice Services Alliance, said: ‘The proposals to transfer most initial advice from face-to-face to telephone services are radical, and appear to be driven very largely by considerations of cost… They raise serious issues about the nature and quality of legal advice that will be available to social welfare law clients in the future.'
Griffith said that, while telephone advice is convenient for many clients and important in increasing access to advice, there are still many advantages to face-to-face advice, particularly where a client has poor English. He added: ‘For the majority of clients, face-to-face advice will disappear. It will only be available for those who have a mental impairment or where cases are complex, but that raises the issue of who is going to determine that.’
Griffith added that a ‘fundamental rethink' of the proposals was required.
Carol Storer, director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, said a well-run national phone line for legal aid could benefit clients, but the proposals outlined in the green paper were limited and lacked details of how the scheme would operate in practice.