An independent commission, launched on Monday, will look at how to develop strategies to cope with the impending cuts to public funding for legal aid. The chair of this commission, Lord Low, has been reported as saying that this will be about getting ‘more out of less’.
Many industries are realising that more efficient service delivery can significantly improve value. The provision of services online is the most obvious practical example of efficient service delivery. Pro bono organisations like LawWorks – in an attempt to get more out of less – are also exploring this option.
For example, the Royal Courts of Justice citizens advice bureau has developed CourtNav, an online tool to assist unrepresented litigants with civil matters. Another online service is Instant Law, which is using Skype-based technology to deliver virtual face-to-face advice. Other organisations doing a similar thing include Turn2Us, Coram's Children's Legal Centre, and Step Change Debt Charity.
The Ministry of Justice is even in the process of creating a website to assist individuals who do not qualify for legal aid by directing them to appropriate pro bono organisations and free legal advice agencies. The website will go live in April 2013 (when the cuts kick in), and this is the MoJ’s attempt to plug the gap created by the £350m that has been cut from the legal aid budget. This is not so much an example of ‘more out of less’ - it’s just less.
Nevertheless, an effective online advice system is not only efficient on resources - it is also much more accessible than the traditional clinic model. This is likely to encourage people to seek advice before a problem escalates, and early intervention will usually mean that a great deal ‘more’ can be achieved using ‘less’ pro bono resources.
LawWorks receives a large number of calls to its switchboard. Most callers are experiencing a problem in its very early stages. They are often looking for some advice on what legal action to take to resolve what tend to be rather straightforward problems. If appropriate action to resolve the matter can’t be suggested, there are usually steps – such as keeping careful records – that if taken can shorten the litigation process.
However, if we compare the availability of online of information about the law, with that of, say, medical information the latter is far more comprehensive.
If you have a pain in your chest, you can ‘Google’ the term ‘abdominal pain’ to discover that it may be caused by one of a range of conditions. At the click of a mouse, the individual is more informed – albeit only slightly. Individuals seeking medical advice also have the option of using the NHS Direct website where they are asked about the exact site of the pain, its duration, whether there are any other symptoms.
With answers to these questions the site is able to suggest a more specific diagnosis and advise on sensible treatment in certain cases. What is more, this information comes from a trusted source, so users of the site can feel sure that they are getting reliable advice.
Google the term ‘faulty goods’, and it is not so straightforward. Many of the schemes above are in their early stages of development and so aren't accessible to most of our callers. There is some information out there – many organisations produce factsheets on common issues of social welfare law – however, it is not so easy to find, does not necessarily come from a reliable source and it tends to be very general advice that is qualified too many times to be useful.
LawWorks is currently developing Free Law Direct, a system which aims to provide online advice on a pro bono basis. At the moment Free Law Direct follows a simple question/answer format. However, we plan to develop a triage system which gathers information much like the one used on the NHS Direct website. It is a long way from fruition, but ultimately it is hoped that it will facilitate the provision of initial legal advice to thousands of individuals across the country. The service will be similar to that which is delivered at the traditional advice clinic.
However, it will be done virtually while the volunteer lawyer is sitting at their desk and the client is at the kitchen table with a cup of tea. The service will save both time and resources – an example of getting more out of less if ever there was one.
It is important to note, however, that even the NHS Direct system relies heavily on the ‘call 999’ fallback. Most NHS Direct users experiencing chest pain, for example, will be told to call 999, regardless of the site, duration, and intensity of their pain. There is no legal equivalent for individuals without the funds to pay for a lawyer. Admittedly, the worst consequences of negligent/no legal advice will rarely include instant death. However, there is research that suggests that the stress of litigation can cause serious health problems, and there have even been reports of individuals committing suicide upon learning of the outcome of their welfare benefits appeal.
In straightforward cases the provision of early legal advice online is one way of achieving more for less. But, what about the complex cases? What about the client without access to the internet, or the one who cannot express him or herself in writing? Innovation to make scarce resources go further is necessary in this current climate, and should be encouraged.
My concern is that these sophisticated programs won’t work in the most complex cases, and will reach only the most resourceful of the individuals affected by the cuts. For the most needy and vulnerable, can they ever be helped with ‘less’ than the traditional lawyer-client relationship?
Lia Moses is a caseworker at LawWorks, a national charity working with solicitors to support, promote and encourage a commitment to pro bono across the profession