An independent commission has called for joined-up action between local government, the NHS, and central government departments such as the Ministry of Justice to tackle a ‘growing advice deficit’.

A report from the Low Commission published today, Getting it right in social welfare law, warns that a growing shortage of social welfare advice is undermining how the welfare system works and is leading to poorer health outcomes.

The report builds on earlier recommendations made in its first report, published last year following a year-long investigation, led by cross-bencher Lord (Colin) Low (pictured), into the state of social welfare law provision, following the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which took most social welfare areas of law out of the scope of civil legal aid.

The second report contains a survey of GPs commissioned last year, where 88% of respondents said lack of access to legal advice on benefit and debt issues was, to a great or some extent, having an adverse impact on patients’ health.

Lord Low said: ‘Our report clearly shows that the advice deficit is growing – and this has consequences for welfare, health and other public services. But this is not irreversible.’

Fixing the deficit, he said, would take time. But a starting point, he said, was for the government to embrace a national advice strategy.

The commission recommended the MoJ bring forward the post-implementation review of LASPO, drawing on all the evidence, and look to widen the remit of housing advice to support preventative interventions.

The MoJ was also advised to undertake a cost-benefit analysis of funding independent duty specialist advice schemes along the lines of housing possession court duty schemes at busy tribunal centres, and evaluate how alternative dispute resolution schemes are working within HM Courts & Tribunals Service with a view to further roll-out.

Other recommendations include:

  • The Department for Work and Pensions should be required to make a strategic contribution to the National Advice and Legal Support Fund;
  • Health and social care commissioners should always ensure their plans include social welfare advice and legal support provision;
  • Local authorities should work with their local advice sector to co-produce a 10-year local advice and legal support plans, providing a basic level of information and advice, including some face-to-face and legal support.  

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: ‘There is no evidence that people eligible for legal aid have been unable to get it when they have tried to. Last year civil legal aid was provided in nearly half a million instances.

‘Getting legal aid and going to court is often not the best way to resolve disputes. There are other ways of doing so that are often more successful and less stressful for all involved, which is why we've made sure legal aid is available for family mediation. Substantial government support has also been given to advisory bodies like Shelter and Citizens Advice to help them adapt to the current funding climate.’

The Low Commission was established by Legal Action Group in 2012 with funding from major trusts and foundations and support from law firms Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Clifford Chance.