Cut the gap

In an attempt to save £350 million a year the coalition government has launched a full frontal attack on access to justice, says Alan Russell.

Since 1st April 2013, legal aid in relation to welfare benefits, debt, employment and education is no longer available; and publicly funded family, housing and immigration advice has been severely curtailed. All this in tandem with the most radical reforms to welfare benefits in a generation.

Can university-based advice services plug the gap?

The answer is no.  Aside from any moral objections, the fact is student-staffed services can never hope to make more than a small dent in the need for free/low cost social welfare legal advice.

However, such services can help if they form part of integrated provision.

Here at London South Bank University (LSBU), in the London Borough of Southwark, we’ve opened a drop in Legal Advice Clinic offering free face-to-face generalist advice in precisely those areas cut from the legal aid scheme. The service is delivered by students, but under the close supervision of practising solicitor/academics employed by the university – between us we have over 30 years experience of social welfare law advice and representation in private practice, law centres and CABs.

We opened in September 2011 and since then we’ve assisted more than 500 clients.

The educational benefit to our students is clear. Our students learn by doing; taking instructions, researching the problem, delivering the advice, writing up a succinct and accurate case record. The kind of hands-on experience even trainee solicitors sometimes don’t get.

The benefit to our clients is clear too. They get on-the-spot generalist social welfare law advice, which has been overseen and checked by solicitors with appropriate expertise. In addition, our clients can access specialist advice (housing, family and employment) at weekly evening sessions staffed by experienced volunteer solicitors from local legal aid firms, Philcox Gray, Wainwright Cummins and Anthony Gold.

We think this is a model that can be exported to other Higher Education Institutions and with the support of the Higher Education Academy we’ve produced a Director’s Manual, available from LawWorks, setting out how to do it  Close and expert supervision is the key, together with the support of local firms for specialist advice.

We’re also thinking about how we can extend our services in light of the cuts. For example, we’re considering a court based scheme where students, again under close and expert supervision, will help self-represented litigants complete court forms and possibly act as McKenzie friends. We’re also looking to take advantage of our staff expertise in welfare benefits and have our students provide a disability benefits form-filling service.

So, yes, university law departments can and should be doing this work. But supervised student provision can never replace adequately resourced local networks of solicitors and community advice services. The cuts to legal aid pose a terrible threat to those networks, including our own here in Southwark. I hope a future government sees sense and reverses them.

Alan Russell is a Law Lecturer / Solicitor at London South Bank University and Director of the LSBU Legal Advice Clinic