As one of the ‘ageing cadre’ of practitioners who spent my early years as a lawyer giving legal advice in NGOs, I am now back in a very different voluntary sector after 20 years in law firms.
A year ago I set up a charity – Your Employment Settlement Service (YESS) – to advise employees (and employers) how to resolve workplace disputes without litigation. We offer a choice of funding options and charge on a cross-subsidy basis. Higher earners pay more than low earners so advice is affordable. If settlement is not reached, a litigating lawyer takes over. Any surplus income goes to pro bono advice. This works in employment because enough employees (and employers) can and will pay something.
People need free advice but there is no money. We have to be more imaginative about how to provide affordable advice, by working together with help from law firms. For example, if lawyers acting for employers paid employment advice charities to advise on settlement agreements, the income could help pay for pro bono advice.
Self-diagnosis through interactive internet-based advice is one method, provided it is accessible and there is a ‘real’ adviser at the end of a phone to deal with queries and tricky questions. A group of us have set up a hub to provide accessible information (FAQs) on shared parental leave (SPLASH – SPL advice on sharing hub), but we will need to have advisers at the end of a phone providing free advice.
Most employees cannot afford to pay for mediation. Judicial mediation in the tribunal costs £600. Commercial mediation is unaffordable because mediators are expensive. Online dispute resolution is a viable option, provided each side has advice about the merits of their case – how else do they know what to settle for? – and there is an experienced mediator involved.
In the current climate, with more cuts to come, we need to think outside the box about how to provide access to advice for those with no money. Working collaboratively, cross-subsidy models and internet based advice/resolution should be part of the package.
Camilla Palmer QC(Hon), chief executive and principal solicitor, YESS, London WC2