Conditions are more favourable for the growth of health justice partnerships – which join healthcare with social welfare legal services – than they have been for many years, a conference heard recently.
Delegates were also told that the Ministry of Justice was looking for ways to hedge against the impoverishing effects on poor people of the loss of legal aid.
Dame Hazel Genn, a professor of socio-legal studies at UCL and a leading authority on civil justice, was speaking at an online conference on the partnerships held by the university.
Research she published in 2019 argued that providing legal assistance services in healthcare settings can both improve access to advice and support health services to manage non-clinical demand.
She told the event she was “more optimistic than I have been for some time” because “one of the few good things that came out of the pandemic, amplified by the economic crisis, has been the focus on health inequalities… and the impact of poverty on health”.
Legal remedies were available, which could be accessed through lawyers that would help solve a number of problems facing individuals.
For instance, the impact of poor housing had been highlighted in 2020 by the tragic death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak in Rochdale, due to the presence of mould in the council flat he was living in.
The academic said the improved climate was stimulated by a “change of thinking in the Ministry of Justice… about how do we mitigate what we now recognise are the downsides of the loss of legal aid”, she said.
Professor Genn continued that a “very big change” had been the passing of the Health and Social Care Act 2022, which created integrated health boards and placed a statutory responsibility on the NHS to “look around and see who they can partner with in order to provide this holistic service delivery… and address health inequalities”.
She said she had been explaining to the government that it did not have to “reinvent the wheel” because health justice partnerships already existed.
“What all of us wants is early intervention [to avoid problems before they happen]… There is a coming together of the thinking within the health sector and the legal services sector which makes it an extremely favourable environment for promoting health justice partnerships.”
Part of the problem was the language used between the two sectors, she said: “When health professionals think of lawyers, they think about prisons and medical negligence.”
Ministers should look at the example of the Scottish government, she observed. It used different language that instead of health justice partnerships, spoke about “welfare advice and health partnerships”.