Charity’s urgent cash appeal after Advicenow funding is refused

Wintersteiger: Abject failure of custodianship.

Public legal education charity Law for Life has launched an emergency appeal for funds after its application for government cash to maintain the Advicenow website – a major legal resource for the public – was refused.

It had sought £120,000 from the Improving Outcomes Through Legal Support grants programme, government cash announced earlier this year for more people to get access to early legal help.

Administered by the Access to Justice Foundation, 59 organisations have been given funding of £10m between them, lasting for 20 months. The foundation said it received 221 applications with a value of over £35m.

Law for Life said it was a long-time legacy grantee from similar funds since 2012 and as a result was able to provide its national online legal information service, which is used by over a million people a year.

Demand has increased by 20% in the last year alone; 34% of Advicenow users identify as disabled, 51% are from low-income households and 28% are helping someone else.

The charity sought just over £120,000 a year to keep the core service going but received nothing, with no taper or impact review. It now has a month to save the service.

Dr Lisa Wintersteiger, chief executive of Law for Life, said: “For over a decade since the legal aid cuts, the government has been funding us and sending people to Advicenow as the primary digital portal for litigants in person in England and Wales.

“At a time of unprecedented challenge for the many people who just cannot afford a lawyer, the decision to turn the lights off within one month is an abject failure of custodianship.

“We have in Alex Chalk one of the most able Lord Chancellors in many years, so we hope he will take action at this critical moment for our national service, to help us secure the relatively small sum of £100,000 to keep the service open.

“In the meantime, we rely on the support of the public and the many firms and chambers who can offer us assistance and help us continue to offer a lifeline to more than a million people.”

The Ministry of Justice recently funded Law for Life to write a guide to civil mediation as part of efforts to resolve claims without going to court, while we reported recently on the success of its unbundled family law service, delivered with family lawyers group Resolution.

Law for Life said research soon to be published showed that claimants who used its tool to challenge benefits decisions were more than twice as likely to get them changed at this stage without needing an appeal than those who did not.

The funding appeal said: “We do have other funding coming in and as the year progresses we will get more. We receive generous continuing support for our education and training services to high-need groups including vulnerable women, migrants and refugees, and people at risk of homelessness, who may not be able to make use of digital help alone.

“We also secure income from consultancy, research funding, and from some of the guides we sell (where we do sell a guide, we always make it available for free for those on low incomes).

“But trusts and foundations rarely want to fund keeping tried-and-tested successful resources up to date and available, or outreach campaigns so that we can get the help to those who most need it, or website support and hosting.

“And without just a bit of help to get us through this unexpected patch, we will not be able to do that. We will have to shut down parts or all of Advicenow in the coming months.”

Clare Carter, chief executive of the Access to Justice Foundation, said: “For many years now, there has been a large and growing gap between the financial needs of the frontline advice sector and the amount of money which we and other grant-making organisations in the sector have available to allocate. The cost-of-living crisis has exacerbated this problem.

“It is therefore inevitable that there will be many worthy applications which simply cannot be funded, and that funding one organisation means not funding another.

“Many frontline organisations live from hand to mouth financially and are close to closure with immediate impact on their clients. We continue to focus our efforts on raising additional funds for the provision of free legal advice.”

In separate news, Dame Maura McGowan has been named as the new chair of the Access to Justice Foundation.

She appointed as the Lord Chief Justice’s nominee to the foundation trustee board in 2021 and will replace current chair Laurence Harris, partner at US firm Cooley, when his term ends in September.

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