MPs and their caseworkers need training on legal issues, a LawWorks report has argued, after research found that three-quarters of issues raised by constituents have a legal element.
The solicitors’ pro bono advice service, together with City giant Hogan Lovells, also highlighted the need for increased funding for advice charities, as they do not have sufficient capacity to deal with constituents’ problems.
LawWorks, working with the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Pro Bono and Public Legal Education, sent volunteers from Hogan Lovells as well as Mishcon de Reya, Eversheds Sutherland and Addleshaw Goddard to 37 MPs’ surgeries between October 2022 and March 2023.
They observed 279 appointments in Birmingham, Cambridgeshire, Durham, Greater Manchester, London, Newbury, Oxford and Reading for the Mind the Gap 2023 report, a repeat of one first conducted by LawWorks and Hogan Lovells in 2016.
Three-quarters of the appointments raised legal issues. Almost half of these (46%) had a housing element, followed by immigration (16%). Other common issues were family, crime, property, health, and education – each accounting for less than 5%.
Researchers also sent an online survey to MPs and caseworkers and received 98 responses. More than half (56%) said casework volumes had increased “significantly” since the pandemic.
Three-quarters of caseworkers said they had referred constituents with legal issues to Citizens Advice, and 36% to local law centres. Most (56%) said the free legal advice agencies in their constituencies “did not have sufficient capacity” to deal with their constituents’ problems.
One MP had received such high volumes of casework relating to housing that they set up specialist housing clinics, to be run jointly by the MP’s caseworkers and local housing advice agencies.
“MPs are often the last resort for those facing legal issues that they are unable to resolve on their own,” the report said. “It is crucial to provide comprehensive training for MPs and caseworkers to enhance their ability to identify legal issues and make appropriate referrals.
“This includes education on legal aid availability and referral resources, enabling them to refer cases where full legal representation is accessible.
“By doing so, MPs and caseworkers can optimise their resources and focus on matters where legal representation is otherwise unavailable, ensuring equitable access to justice for constituents.”
The APPG on Access to Justice runs free sessions on various areas of law, helping them to distinguish non-legal housing challenges from legal ones, for example. “We encourage all MPs and casework staff to attend the training,” the report said.
Advice charities needed more resourcing so they have the capacity to handle the work referred to them, it went on.
This would also make the advice sector “better placed to scale up the use of pro bono legal resources which are currently available but under-used”.
The report explained: “There is a real opportunity to mobilise more free lawyer time if advice centres were able to provide solicitor supervision and co-ordination of pro bono resources.”
It also recommended the creation of a platform for MPs to “share learning and guidance on innovative schemes such as specialist housing surgeries etc, allowing them to pool resources to create efficiencies and encourage a more standardised system of support for people regardless of constituency”.
The final recommendation was that MPs should be surveyed every five years on access to justice. As the majority of MPs declined to participate in the research or failed to respond to requests to engage, “we would recommend that the survey be institutionalised within the remit of the administration of the House by the Speaker”.
Rebecca Wilkinson, chief executive of LawWorks, said the report showed how “people believe their MP can or should be able to help them navigate” legal issues.
As constituents’ cases usually involved disputes “against state institutions, often involving a dispute about a process”, in contrast to most private family law or employment disputes, it was “understandable” that housing and immigration were the most common legal issues at surgeries.
“What remains up for debate is the role MPs’ surgeries should play in advising their constituents versus the role the advice sector could have were they to have the capacity.”
In her introduction to the report, Labour shadow justice minister Ellie Reeves MP described it as “a great example of how the corporate pro bono community can help to support the wider legal advice sector to demonstrate the importance and relevance of a legal system that is accessible and available to all”.
She added: “I hope we can all work together to drive through some of these opportunities for collaboration to ensure that MPs’ offices are engaging with the wider legal advice sector to improve the support for all our constituents.”
A report last month said MPs in Westminster and members of the Senedd Cymru in Cardiff were playing a “little recognised role” in providing access to justice for people with social welfare problems.