Law centres have been awarded nearly half a million pounds from the UK's largest funder of community activity to improve their digital capabilities, as it emerged that their numbers have halved since the government wielded an axe over the legal aid budget.
The Law Centres Network says the £494,000 National Lottery grant, which spans four years, will be spent on conducting a multi-year programme of digital research and development, building on existing work and establishing new tools to enhance existing law centre services.
Julie Bishop, network director, said: 'After talking with both lawyers and clients, we realised that we need to think about how we can use digital tools to make the most of lawyer time, which is our most expensive resource. This funding will make a big difference to law centres up and down the country - helping us develop simple innovations like SMS reminders to clients about appointments and what documents to bring and focusing on how we communicate with clients. We will open-source all we develop and make available our learning to our peers and the wider sector.'
The cash will be welcome news after figures published by the Ministry of Justice last week showed that the number of law centres has plummeted from 94 in 2013/14, the year that the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act came into force, to 47 as things stand this month.
The ministry says the figures do not paint the full picture of coverage. It says there are areas where law centres may have chosen to consolidate offices but continue to deliver larger volumes of work across a whole procurement area. Individuals are also not limited to accessing legal advice providers in the procurement area where they live.
A spokesperson for the ministry said: 'Every person should have access to legal advice when they need it - that’s why the Legal Aid Agency keeps availability under constant review and takes urgent actions whenever it has concerns. We spent £1.6bn on legal aid last year and in addition to the Civil Legal Advice Telephone service, we are investing £5m in innovative technologies to help people access legal support wherever they are.'
Meanwhile, the Personal Support Unit (PSU), which provides information and assistance to litigants in person, has unveiled plans to expand its services following the cuts to legal aid.
The unit helps litigants in person sort through paperwork, organise case notes, and attend court hearings. It set up a free, confidential helpline in March, which has received 2,892 calls so far. Founded in 2001, PSU relies on funding from the government, trusts, corporate sponsors and donations. Its annual revenue was £1,103,257 in 2018/19.
To fund the helpline and other services, Lady Hale, president of the Supreme Court and a PSU patron, will participate in a BBC Radio 4 Appeal on 28 July. PSU also wants to increase the number of corporate partners from 22 to 30 by next year.