Government early legal advice pilot “helped five people”

Middlesbrough: Four people helped

A Ministry of Justice (MoJ) pilot project offering people early publicly funded legal advice for housing debt and welfare benefit ended up helping only five people, an evaluation report has found.

However, MoJ researchers calculated that for every £1 spent on the early legal advice pilot (ELAP), £4.10 of public value benefits would result, suggesting that the benefits of a successful pilot “might plausibly outweigh costs”.

Justice minister Lord Wolfson launched the ELAP in February 2022, focused on housing, debt and welfare benefits advice in Middlesbrough and Manchester.

Local authorities in the two areas sent 20,415 letters to residents with council tax arrears between November 2022 and January 2023, asking them to complete a survey, in return for which they were offered a £15 shopping voucher.

In a final evaluation report, MoJ researchers said it “became clear that the response rate to the survey was lower than anticipated (0.4%, compared to a lowest anticipated response rate scenario of 1%) and the subsequent take-up of the ELAP advice service amongst the treatment group was near zero”.

As a result, the local authorities sent out a further 6,276 updated invitation letters and providers were permitted to refer people directly to the pilot.

Despite these efforts, researchers said participation in the survey was “lower than anticipated”, with 104 people completing it, two-thirds of whom were based in Middlesbrough.

The vast majority of participants, 96 out of 104, “reported an in-scope legal need”, but only three people went on to access the service – indicating that those who completed the survey probably did so because of the incentive.

Overall, five participants received advice from the pilot: four in Middlesbrough from the single private provider, and one in Manchester from a not-for-profit provider.

Despite the lack of take-up, providers “felt the service was beneficial in all cases, and highly beneficial in some, with at least one participant avoiding eviction as a direct result”.

In a separate assessment of costs and benefits, researchers calculated that, for every £1 spent on ELAP, £4.10 of “public value benefits would be realised, suggesting benefits from ELAP might plausibly outweigh costs”.

The main contributors to the benefits were “increased subjective wellbeing from decreased debt arrears, and increased take-up of benefit entitlements”.

Researchers said that although the pilot “was stopped before progressing to a full trial”, valuable lessons were learned.

Among them was the need to identify user groups and actively engage them, particularly as “many participants did not realise their needs were legal in nature”.

Nick Emmerson, president of the Law Society, commented: “While we were disappointed that this early legal advice pilot failed to provide results, we welcome this thorough examination of the problems in design and implementation of the pilot and identification of lessons learned.”

Mr Emmerson backed the report’s recommendation that future pilots should be co-designed with advice stakeholders and that advice services needed to be “bedded in and operational before a robust evaluation can be designed”.

He added: “Building on the findings of this report, we hope the MoJ will continue its engagement with the legal and advice sectors to find effective ways to offer early advice under the civil legal aid scheme.”

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