Churches should set up legal advice networks to help those unable to access justice following recent legal aid cuts, a report from a Christian thinktank urges.
Speaking Up – Defending and Delivering Access to Justice Today, published by Theos, says recent reforms make it ‘less likely that affordable, accessible legal representation will be available in all cases where it is needed’.
Legal aid is only available in a small category of clinical negligence cases, and no longer available in most divorce, housing law, employment, debt, immigration, education and welfare benefit cases.
The report suggests churches could run pop-up legal clinics, set up legal advice networks, or encourage members to volunteer at local law centres or Citizens Advice services.
It says: ‘A particular issue could be identified where injustice is likely to occur, such as family breakdown, debt, the minimum wage, housing or immigration, and develop the expertise to offer help on that issue.’
Co-author Andrew Caplen, president of the Law Society, said without full and fair access to justice, the rule of law was just a ‘concept, an ideal’.
The report highlights the success of charity Christians Against Poverty’s network of local centres, which provides services to those struggling with debt. It asks whether a similar ‘relatively low-cost “semi-professional” model’ could be applied to legal issues, using local volunteers to provide relational support and to collect and present information, with access to legal specialists as and when required.
‘A support network of this nature, providing resources and training, could be the necessary formula for creating a cohesive Christian legal assistance system which allows for that focused delivery at local grassroots level. It could be just the tap on the back needed to get more Christians participating.’
The report says that many Christians are already involved on an ‘informal, ad hoc basis’ in their communities. ‘A certain amount is most likely carried out by Christian lawyers in the back of a church over an after-service coffee and biscuit. Such individuals are liable to find themselves the go-to person in their congregation for casual legal advice.
‘Unfortunately, due to its informal nature, this kind of work disappears under the radar, limiting both its visibility and take-up of such assistance.’