As the demand for free legal advice soars, a pro bono charity has highlighted the significant impact solicitors can make to clients’ health and family relationships.
LawWorks’ annual clinics report states that the network responded to more than 53,000 enquiries between April 2015 and March this year – a 24% increase on the previous year.
Worryingly, more than seven in 10 saw a rise in the number of clients in ‘crisis’ or ‘distress’.
At the pre-advice stage, 82% of clients felt stressed because of their legal problem, 77% felt worried, and 62% were upset. Over half felt anxious, depressed, angry or confused.
Other feelings identified by 7% of respondents included feeling suicidal, humiliated and degraded.
More than three-quarters of clients felt their legal problem had affected their mental or physical health.
Eight in 10 felt their legal problem was affecting their family or personal relationships. Nearly a quarter said their legal problem was either affecting behaviour problems in their children or resulting in increased arguments with them.
Describing their employment woes, one respondent told the report: ‘Psychologically hard to go and be in work. Had heart palpitations and sometimes feel even physically sick before going into work.’
Some clients reported being unable to eat, sleep, losing weight, and having headaches or memory loss. One client said: ‘Not eating properly – sleep – mistakes driving on the road.’
Showing the marked difference legal advice can make, eight in 10 felt less stressed after receiving help.
One client told the report: ‘If you know what your rights are, that’s it, you are empowered. Nobody can take that knowledge away from me once I know it.’
Another said: ‘Mentally I am in a far better position. The solicitor has helped take a lot of the stress away. It has helped me set aside the issues, the cause of my worry. Previously I couldn’t sleep. The guidance helped me to relax… I have been able to crack on with my work rather than thinking of it all the time.
‘As a result, I have a better relationship with my partner and my kids. At times it has felt like a bereavement. The solicitor has helped me to move on. The case is no longer dominating my life.’
Other findings in the report include family law overtaking employment and housing as the most common advice area and a ‘notable’ growth in asylum and immigration advice.
Solicitors and trainee solicitors made up 92% of lawyer-volunteers.
Despite 39 new clinics joining the now 223-strong network, the charity noted a 16% decrease in the amount of debt advice being given, and a 2% drop in consumer and contract advice.
The report states: ‘This can be seen against a backdrop where changes to the licensing of consumer credit activities in 2014 (when regulation moved from the Office of Fair Trading to the Financial Conduct Authority) resulted in a number of clinics being forced to close debt advice services.
‘This is an issue LawWorks continues to raise with policymakers, and these latest figures provide further evidence of the impact that the regulatory changes have had on the provision on pro bono debt advice.’