Fewer people than expected are using the mandatory gateway for civil legal advice because of a lack of awareness amongst the public and with advice providers, a Ministry of Justice review has admitted.
The telephone service was introduced with the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act to help people find easier and more convenient ways of accessing targeted advice.
The Ministry of Justice promised a review of the service within two years and this week published initial findings on how it has worked.
The department said there is no evidence that ‘substantial’ numbers of people in need are not access the service, but there remains a general view it is unfamiliar, not widely publicised and difficult to find.
‘Given our ongoing engagement, we expected there to be a greater understanding of the gateway among the advice sector, and it is disappointing this is not the case,’ the report said.
The MoJ pledged to work harder with referral organisations such as Citizens Advice so they are able to provide information about the gateway.
There is also recognition of the need to ‘manage user expectations’ before they are transferred to a specialist, and to inform people about the remit of the service.
The report concluded: ‘Overall, the research confirms that the gateway is effectively meeting the specific needs of users who qualify and contact the service. It is encouraging that the research findings were broadly positive of the gateway, recognizing its flexibility and ease of use and being able to obtain ‘quick’ advice without having to attend an appointment.’
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.
From the start of the mandatory elements of the gateway until 1 November this year, the service was operated by Capita. Since then a new partner, Freedom Communications, has run the service after a tender process.