The work of pro bono clinics continues to rise, the charity LawWorks has reported, as it argued the case for giving people early access to legal help.
It also warned about the risk that digital exclusion could exacerbate existing legal exclusion.
LawWorks’ 2018 clinics report – analysing the work of 229 clinics across the country in the year to 31 March 2018 – said that 76% saw an increase in demand for pro bono legal advice over the previous year, and 52% reported an increase in the number of clients in crisis or distress.
A project looking for the first time at outcomes found that over 75% of clients said that, as a result of the information or advice they received, they felt more confident in dealing with their problem and had a better understanding of their situation.
The report comes ahead of publication of the Ministry of Justice’s long-awaited review of the impact of LASPO, to which there has been concerted lobbying to reintroduce legal aid to give early advice.
“Recent research by Ipsos MORI and the Law Society has suggested a link between the provision of early advice and the resolution of people’s legal issues,” LawWorks said.
“In many ways, our outcomes data corroborates this, and though early advice may not always provide an immediate resolution, what it does do is to set people on a road whereby they are able to take control of the problem, and feel more confident in the next steps they need to take.”
LawWorks said that, in its submission to the LASPO review, it argued the case for a “full spectrum of support”, from public legal education and information to help people identify problems, through to casework and advocacy within the legal system.
The report said: “Digital technologies are also playing an increasingly important role both within the justice system, and in the way that people can access support. It is important though that that we put the needs of the users first in the way that services are designed and accessed.
“There is an ever present danger that digital exclusion could further compound the problem of legal exclusion; the focus on ‘legaltech’ solutions has potential to bridge the distance between citizens and their rights, but also to accentuate that divide.”
The report found that the clinics – the number of which had grown to 244 by the end of 2018 – dealt with 60,000 enquiries (up 2%) and gave specific legal advice to 39,937 clients – a 14% increase on the previous year.
A further 12,250 clients were given general information or signposted or referred to other services;
Some 41% of clinics in the network are law school-based clinics and, collectively, they dealt with over 19,000 enquiries.
More than a third (35%) of the advice provided was on family law, with employment (17%), housing (15%) and asylum and immigration (10%) the next largest categories.
Over 9,000 individuals volunteered across the LawWorks clinics network, a 33% reported increase on the previous year – 28% of volunteers were solicitors.
Of those clients whose income was recorded, 72% had incomes below the Joseph Rowntree Foundation minimum income standard; 60% of clients were women, nearly 49% were from black and minority ethnic communities, and 22% identified as having a disability.