The new mandatory gateway for civil legal advice may have been a barrier to access to justice, according to charity Public Law Project, which has published research showing the service has been used far less widely than expected.
The charity's report, entitled Keys to the Gateway: An Independent Review of the Mandatory Civil Legal Advice Gateway, states that the number of debt matters seen under the gateway has been about 90% less than initial calculations.
The numbers of special education needs and discrimination matters through the service, which began in April 2013, have been at least 45% and 60% less, respectively, than in figures provided in Legal Services Commission tenders for gateway services.
Debt matters have fallen by 50% and discrimination matters by 58% since the introduction of the gateway. The report says ‘this is notwithstanding a general increase of 2% over the same period of time in the number of legal help matters started across all areas of law via all channels of advice provision’.
Referral rates for face-to-face advice have been ‘substantially lower’ than that previously estimated by the Legal Aid Agency in respect of discrimination and special education needs.
The telephone service was introduced under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 to help people find easier and more convenient ways of accessing targeted advice. Individuals seeking advice and assistance in one of three mandatory areas of law – debt, discrimination and special educational needs – can only obtain that advice and assistance via the gateway.
But Public Law Project identified ‘major omissions’ from a Ministry of Justice review published last year, including ‘consideration of the impact of the gateway on individuals who did not access it but who would have been entitled to do so’.
It added there was ‘insufficient evidence’ that the gateway was meeting parliamentary and policy intentions, and that in some areas ‘those intentions are being undermined and frustrated’.
Public Law Project recommended the MoJ publish gateway data as part of its regular legal aid statistical bulletin and publish the outcomes of assessments made by specialist telephone advice providers of the operator service.
The MoJ said this afternoon: ‘The recent review of the CLA gateway recognised its flexibility and ease of use. We have extended the opening hours of the service, which has a range of accessible options such as a British Sign Language service and translation into more than 170 languages.
‘We continue to monitor the operation of the gateway and we are working with partners to make sure they are able to signpost the service.’
The gateway is run by the Civil Legal Advice helpline in England and Wales and is funded by legal aid. Available every weekday from 9am to 8pm and on Saturday morning, it provides advice in debt, discrimination, special educational needs, housing and family issues for people who qualify for civil legal aid.
Until 1 November 2014, the gateway was operated by Capita. Following a tender process it was replaced by Freedom Communications.