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Government to pilot publicly funded early legal advice

Wolfson: Legal problems need to be understood holistically

Manchester and Middlesbrough are to host pilots to test the benefits of early publicly funded legal advice, the government said this week.

It is also investigating putting legal advice centres in hospitals.

Justice minister Lord Wolfson outlined the latest moves in a letter to the justice select committee and in a short debate in the House of Lords on legal aid in social welfare law.

Last month, the government laid a statutory instrument to bring legal advice for certain housing, debt and welfare benefits issues in scope of legal aid for the purposes of the pilots. The work will be non-means and non-merits tested and there will be a new standard fee of £200.70.

Lawyers will be able to charge £57.43 an hour for preparation and attendance, £32.17 for travel and waiting time, and £4.56 per routine letter out and telephone call.

Lord Wolfson said in his letter: “The pilot itself is designed to test the expansion of legal aid to an area of social welfare, demonstrate the possible benefits of advice in encouraging early resolution, and quantify the downstream benefits of early resolution to government…

“In terms of operation, the pilot will focus on quantifying potential savings to the government by preventing housing matters currently in scope of LASPO (e.g., loss of home) materialising.”

The design recognised that individual’s legal problems often overlapped and should be understood holistically to produce useful advice, he went on.

“Participants will receive comprehensive legally aided advice covering housing, debt, and welfare benefits. This will be provided free of charge, for a fixed number of hours, which may be spread across several sessions.”

Lord Wolfson told peers that the Ministry of Justice was also looking at putting legal advice centres in hospitals, “because we know that people who have legal problems often have other social welfare problems as well”.

He added: “It is often the case that you cannot resolve all your problems through the law; you need a holistic approach. I think we need some hard evidence, and the pilot will be very useful in this area.”

Research published in 2019 [1] argued that providing legal assistance services in healthcare settings could both improve access to advice and support health services to manage non-clinical demand.

It said integrating health and social welfare legal services should be considered “an essential element in the development of social prescribing”, that is, enabling GPs to refer patients to non-medical support services.

The government pilots are the latest initiatives to come out of its 2019 legal support action plan [2].