Government looks to the Netherlands for civil legal aid reform

Amsterdam: Dutch model identified as an exemplar

The Dutch civil legal aid model for triaging cases, reducing bureaucracy by trusting providers and building “360-degree feedback loops” could help in England and Wales, the Ministry of Justice has been told.

The government’s Open Innovations Team (OIT) singled it out in an international study of civil legal aid systems commissioned to inform the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) ongoing civil legal aid review.

The OIT said the Dutch system’s tiered approach could help it “target legal aid resources effectively”.

A cross-government unit that works with external experts to generate “analysis, ideas and options”, the OIT conducted a literature review on civil legal aid in England and Wales and six other legal systems – the Netherlands, USA, Canada, Australia, Finland and Scotland – and interviewed 45 experts.

It found that the Dutch model for “identifying, triaging and prioritising cases” was “consistently identified as an exemplar”.

The first tier in terms of civil legal aid is the Rechtwijzer (Roadmap to Justice) website, set up by the Dutch Legal Aid Board in 2007, which offers online self-help, information and support.

The second tier is made up of legal services ‘counters’, where citizens clarify their legal matters with lawyers or paralegals in person, on the phone or using email. Private lawyers and mediators make up the third tier, providing legally aided advice and representation for more complex cases.

The OIT said this approach could “help enable the MoJ’s vision for a justice system that supports people from the earliest point they begin to experience a legal problem and to target legal aid resources effectively”.

However, the risks were that self-help websites were “not always intuitive enough to diagnose a complex multifaceted problem for a user” and there was “a risk of referral fatigue as users are potentially handed off from one provider to another”.

Researchers said the Netherlands has a ‘high trust’ system for legal aid applications by trusted providers, which streamlined merit requirements.

This could be “particularly applicable to challenges faced in England and Wales”, where auditing and administrative burdens could take providers away from critical billable time.

However, any changes needed to be “carefully balanced” with the need for oversight, and requirements should be “calibrated” to reduce the risks of error, fraud and a poor-quality service.

The Dutch Legal Aid Board had been piloting “360-degree feedback loops”, which “collect data from users, lawyers and professionals in the legal aid system, which is then combined with data about legal issue types, lead times, and geography”.

Such loops could help the design and development of policy, but any mechanisms for collecting data should be “mindful of not creating too many requirements” for providers.

Antonia Romeo, permanent secretary at the MoJ, told the House of Commons public accounts committee earlier this week that collecting some data on access to legal aid services “would put too much of a burden on providers.”

Nick Emmerson, president of the Law Society, commented that high levels of bureaucracy contributed to a “crisis of sustainability” in England and Wales, while “lack of autonomy can create an atmosphere of mistrust between the Legal Aid Agency and its providers”.

He said the society had “already started work to explore how the Netherlands model highlighted in the report could translate into an England and Wales context”.

The MoJ has said the findings of the civil legal aid review, launched in January last year, will be published in a green paper in July.

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