LawWorks set up a new telephone helpline this year to provide practical, non-legal advice to the public. It has proved an uncomfortable and worrying experience. 

There was a time when people could have gone to their local Citizens Advice bureau for this sort of information, but this is no longer always a feasible option because of a massively overstretched CAB network.

As well as addressing this gap in the information market, the helpline has revealed something remarkable…

There have been a significant number of calls to the helpline from people who are eligible for legal aid, but who have been unable to access it through the Ministry of Justice’s compulsory telephone gateway. This is because of long periods on hold, unhelpful staff or being transferred to the wrong department and then disconnected. In other words, the typical call-centre experience.

However, in these cases the consequences are rather more serious than they are when it comes to dealing with your mobile phone.

Many will know that as of 1 April , 2013 (except in certain limited circumstances) individuals can no longer access legal aid for debt, discrimination or Special Educational Needs cases without first going through this gateway. The mandatory gateway was highly controversial during consultation on LASPO, and many predicted these sorts of difficulties. A few months on we can say anecdotally that we have noticed problems, but it is difficult to justify allocating scarce resources to gathering proper data. I wonder if other organisations are experiencing the same?

We are also hearing reports of problems from those who are able to get approved via the gateway.  Even though they are told that they are eligible, they are left feeling confused about where to go next.

They might be advised to go to the Law Society’s website to find a solicitor. If they are unable to do that they then go back to the gateway. They are then told to go to back to the Law Society. And it goes on. The savvier of the bunch will search the internet for firms. But not everyone has regular access to the internet and it is not easy to use standard search engines to bring up a list of firms with legal aid contracts. Many callers to our helpline have described this sort of experience. In these cases, we refer people to an extremely helpful website where individuals can search for legal aid firms by location and area of law. This website is in fact provided by the MoJ – the very same government department responsible for the telephone gateway. Perhaps the people at the MoJ in charge of the website could talk to the people at the MoJ in charge of the gateway. This might save these callers (and the advice sector) a great deal of time and hassle.

One of my colleagues described the following, apparently typical, situation: ‘Mr B contacted the LawWorks helpline alleging that his former employer failed to make reasonable adjustments for his disability at work. He was unemployed, in receipt of income support and had no savings. Prior to contacting LawWorks, Mr B visited his local CAB for advice which, in turn, referred him to the MoJ telephone gateway to check if he was eligible for legal aid. After contacting the telephone gateway, Mr B was informed that he was eligible for legal aid and should look at the Law Society website to find a solicitor in his area. Due to his disability, Mr B was unable to travel far for a solicitor and found he could not find an appropriate legal aid solicitor in his area (North Yorkshire). Confused by the process of finding a legal aid solicitor, he contacted the gateway yet again, and subsequently embarked on an endless loop of blind referrals. Along the line, he was given the telephone number of the CAB (again), Disability Law Service and even, confusingly, the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Eventually, he got in touch with LawWorks, incredibly frustrated and confused by what appeared to him to be an inaccessible and not transparent legal aid system.’

We have also been getting an increasing number of callers referred to us by debt advice agencies such as the Money Advice Service. These agencies cannot help with the more complex queries, so they refer callers to LawWorks. Need is high because there are so many people facing difficult economic circumstances.  But debt is an area that remains within scope? So these people should be able to access legal aid? Ah yes, they must first get through the gateway.

Obviously, we only hear from those who have had trouble. I do not doubt that many will access the gateway just fine and we will never hear from them. Also, the gateway is only a few months old and every system needs a bit of time to iron out any kinks, but I cannot help but wonder if an impenetrable gateway is not just part of the big plan to save £350m from the legal aid budget.

Lia Moses is a caseworker at LawWorks, a national charity working with solicitors to support, promote and encourage a commitment to pro bono across the profession