Law centres and advice providers can play a crucial role in helping prisoners to build crime-free lives once they get out jail, and reduce the annual £15bn cost of reoffending, an independent thinktank says today. 

The Centre for Justice Innovation, which has long championed the need for specialist problem-solving courts and procedural fairness, has turned its attention to the challenges facing ex-offenders with its latest report, Point me in the right direction: Making advice work for former prisoners.

The report focuses on improving legal and social welfare advice provision for people who are on probation supervision following a period of custody in England and Wales, with a particular focus on voluntary sector advisers. 

The centre says social welfare advice services such as Citizens Advice bureaus and law centres can help vulnerable people manage housing, employment and income issues. But ’due to far-reaching cuts, these services often don’t work for former prisoners who don’t know the services, find it hard to get appointments, and face a sense of stigma about their offending past.’

Report author Stephen Whitehead (pictured), better courts programme manager for the centre, told the Gazette that social welfare lawyers have the clearest role to play in rehabilitation.

He said: ’Legal advice from qualified solicitors is at the heart of advice agencies like Citizens Advice bureaus and Law Centres. Former prisoners should be able to depend on these services when they come up against discrimination and mistreatment in areas like housing and employment, which are vital to rehabilitation.

’However, cuts to legal aid and rising demand have led to a perfect storm, which threatens to deprive people of the help they need. If we’re serious about cutting reoffending, we must find new ways to fund and provide expert advice.’

The report cites Hackney Law Centre’s efforts as an example of developing new models for advice delivery. As the Gazette reported in June, the law centre is seeking to build a phone app to help promote access to justice. 

The approach used by the online CourtNav tool, which helps Citizens Advice clients prepare the paperwork for divorce proceedings, could be applied to other ’relatively routine legal procedures’, the report suggests. The tool was developed by the Royal Courts of Justice Advice Bureau and magic circle firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.

To help former prisoners with housing, law centres and advice providers could help clients in rented accommodation to force landlords to make repairs to substandard properties or to resist eviction.

Advice providers could also help with employment issues, such as managing disputes and grievances, and discrimination or unfair dismissal claims. However, the report acknowledges that many former prisoners may struggle with employment tribunal costs.

To help improve advice provision in prisons, the report recommends that governors of resettlement prisons commission local social welfare advice providers to run in-prison advice clinics. These would support prisoners to prepare for release by resolving issues around benefits, debt, housing, immigration and family law.

Commissioners of offender services are also urged to ’actively seek’ to include advice providers in their supply chains, and collaborate on designing new, dedicated models that can ’better meet’ the needs of former prisoners or help current prisoners to prepare for release.