A ground-breaking remote service offering fixed-fee unbundled legal advice to litigants in person facing certain family law issues has been boosted by the sudden familiarity people have with talking to others online during Covid-19.
According to Mary Marvel, deputy chief executive of Law for Life – the charity which is created the pilot together with family lawyers group Resolution – Affordable Advice received twice as many contacts in May as it did in the previous two months combined.
Though still relatively small numbers, given it only launched on 28 February, the pilot aims to pioneer new ways of working to support separating families, dovetailing public legal education approaches with unbundled legal advice “to provide low-cost, high-volume effective help for people on low to medium incomes”.
It has been designed to encourage the solicitors involved to offer appointments remotely – via telephone or Skype, WhatsApp, or Facetime – and so go some way towards addressing lack of access in remote areas or advice deserts, or the issues faced by people who find it hard to attend face-to-face appointments because of disability.
The service is accessible through Advicenow, the public-facing website of the Litigant in Person Support Strategy. The pilot is with users of three of its guides, on sorting out finances on divorce, applying for a court order about the arrangements for children, and applying for a financial order.
When the reader gets to stages where accessing legal advice would be particularly beneficial, they see a box which explains what they would get advice on and how much it would cost.
If they want to find out more, they are taken to a page where they can select a Resolution panel member and request an appointment.
The user then sends their selected solicitor their details, and automatically receives an email which includes a form they must complete and return to the solicitor in advance of their appointment. The panel members respond to every enquiry within two working days.
Following the appointment, the client receives a written summary of the advice given and the next steps they should take in managing their case.
Most appointments cost £120 (including VAT). There are some, much longer, appointments that are offered at £240. What is covered in the appointment is prescribed, which is why the panel members were willing to offer a fixed fee, along with the information they receive up-front.
Both the pricing and the appointment parameters are part of what the pilot is testing.
Ms Marvel said: “We know that many Advicenow users are forced to be litigants in person as they can’t afford to pay a solicitor to help them with their case, and often they have no option but to go to court.
“We work hard to ensure that our step-by-step guides for those dealing with legal problems themselves are as helpful as they can be.
“All our family law guides suggest our users get legal advice from a Resolution member at the most important points in a case if they can possibly afford it, but a combination of lack of confidence, uncertainties around cost, and high prices of legal help prevent many from accessing the advice they need.
“There also simply aren’t services that offer unbundled family law advice all over the country or in the way that Advicenow users who are litigants in person need.”