Monday, August 14, 2006

New CLS ploy to reduce legal aid budget

A report in the Observer indicates that the Community Legal Service's telephone advice service may have a more sinister objective than just to help people solve their legal problems on the phone.

The service is one whereby callers who qualify for legal aid can call a national helpline for up to half an hours free telephone advice. Sounds good. But the Ob article reports that some people, among them Roger Smith, director of the human rights group Justice, who took part in a 'mystery shopper' exercise for a recent issue of Independent Lawyer magazine, are concerned that the CLS advisers seem reluctant to refer callers on for face-to-face help.

Over the last 12 months, 73,500 problems were dealt with by the helpline, but there was a referral rate of only 13%. This seems suspiciously low. Although the CLS report customer 'satisfaction ratings' of 93 per cent of callers happy with the telephone service, callers whose reason for ringing is that they don't know the answer to their problem are not really the best people to judge whether they have been properly advised or not.

'It isn't possible to give issue-specific advice to tenants without reviewing paperwork,' the Observer quotes from Pierce Glynn partner Steven Pierce, another solicitor who took part in the mystery shopper exercise. 'OK, you can give accurate general advice, but you can't determine whether or not somebody has a defence by talking on a phone.' Well I would certainly agree with that.

Telephone advice can be great, but it can also be dangerous. For example the caller may only have a vague idea of the paperwork involved and may give a wholly incorrect description of it, resulting in incorrect advice being given. In a situation where someone is at risk of losing their home, I would always recommend getting advice on the paperwork as this is an area where paperwork is critical. Lawyers who know what they are doing can usually see at a glance what the true situation is from the papers, whereas the client, who knows nothing of these matters, in a telephone call may not even mention the most critical items, and instead concentrate on telling you something which is actually irrelevant.

Notwithstanding this, the CLS expects to increase spending on the service from £15m to £25m next year and £28m in 2008. However Russell Conway, a member of the Law Society's access to justice committee, who also took part in the test, and who described the referral rate of 13 per cent as 'bizarre' commented 'There are only so many issues that can be resolved over the phone. If consumers are being put off taking proper legal steps, it does more harm than good.' But giving advice by telephone is much cheaper than paying for the client to consult a solicitor for face to face advice.

John Sirodcar, the head of direct services at the Legal Services Commission, denied (says the Observer)that advisers were reluctant to refer clients on to face-to-face services where appropriate. He also said that he had not received any client details. 'Give me the evidence and I will check it out,' he added.

But how will the clients know that they should have been referred on? As mentioned above the whole reason for their call in the first place is that they are ignorant of the law. They may never find out that the advice was wrong or misconceived, in which case they will never complain. Of course this could be said about all legal services, however given the full information most lawyers will come to the correct conclusion. The problem with the telephone advice service is that the lawyers advice may be based on an incomplete picture.

Failure to refer on (and thus save money) and the trumpeting of meaningless 'satisfaction surveys' are some of the problems of a system driven by cost cutting and statistics.

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