Legal advice centres could be piloted in hospitals, a justice minister has revealed during a parliamentary debate in which he ruled out restoring 'pre-LASPO' legal aid.
The MoJ committed in 2019 to piloting legal aid for early advice in an area of social welfare law as part of its Legal Support Action Plan. Last November, it confirmed that the pilot would begin this year.
In a Lords debate on social welfare law cases yesterday, justice minister Lord Wolfson of Tredegar confirmed that the necessary preparatory work has begun. Legislation was laid on last month to pilot provision of early legal advice for debt, housing and welfare benefit matters, which will commence later this year. The pilots will take place in Manchester and Middlesbrough.
The justice minister revealed that his department is looking at putting legal advice centres in hospitals.
Responding to crossbench peer Lord Bird, who queried the need for a pilot, Lord Wolfson said: ‘You need a test to ensure that what you are doing is the most useful thing you can do. For example, we are looking at putting legal advice centres in hospitals, because we know that people who have legal problems often have other social welfare problems as well. It is often the case that you cannot resolve all your problems through the law; you need a holistic approach. I think we need some hard evidence, and the pilot will be very useful in this area.’
Whether the NHS would support legal advice centres in hospitals remains to be seen. In April 2017 the Department of Health announced a ban on personal injury firms from advertising in hospitals in England. The chief executive of NHS England said the health service wanted ‘lawyers out of hospital and doctors out of court’.
Yesterday's debate also heard calls for the government to restore legal aid funding.
Labour's Lord Watts said: 'Is it not the case that the government’s review and the pilot schemes demonstrate that the government got it very badly wrong when they cut millions of pounds from this area? Would it not be better to restore those cuts and then do a proper review and make sure that, this time, it covers people and gives them some rights?'
Lord Wolfson replied: ‘My Lords, I made a commitment to myself today not to mention the words “Grayling” or “Gray”. What I would say is that, in this area, there is no going back to the pre-LASPO position.’
'Grayling' is understood to be a reference to Chris Grayling, lord chancellor from 2012-2015; 'Gray' to the investigation into so-called 'Partygate'.
It was also confirmed yesterday that the legal aid means test review, which was supposed to come out last spring following a Covid-related pause, will be published shortly.