Advice surgeries are no substitute for legal aid funding

February 13, 2019

By June Venters QC

I welcome the suggestion by the Justice Minister, Lucy Frazer QC and reported in the article printed on 08.02.19 that legal advice should be offered from GP surgeries. I also support the idea that this should be funded. However, this is something I have been doing since 2010, but have received no funding for doing so and have provided this service, pro bono.

The concept first came to me around the time when legal aid was so dramatically reduced. I knew, as did my colleagues working in the field of social justice that this would inevitably lead to many in need being denied access to justice. I said at the time and remain firmly of the view that the cuts amounted to "short term gain" for "long term loss." This is precisely what we are now seeing. When those in need of justice are denied the opportunity to access it, the consequences impact beyond the individual to our communities and society as a whole. For example, families can become dysfunctional and health suffers. This causes a further drain on other services often on our stretched NHS.

In 2009, my family GP and I were professionally assisting a mother. Our roles, to some extent overlapped. This caused us both to consider how, if at all, we might be able to work collaboratively, both recognising that when there are unresolved legal issues, such as domestic violence, divorce, and children matters [as well as many other areas of the law such as housing] an individual's health suffers. This creates a need for medical services, which eats into the already limited resources of the NHS. When external pressures cannot be relieved because individuals cannot pursue solutions, for example by seeking a divorce and financial relief from their spouse, this can cause physical and mental ill health, which increases the pressure on them and those around them, such as their children.

In the 10 years during which I have been involved in providing this service and which I offer weekly on a Monday evening, I have been able to help many people. Whilst I am proud of the service I have provided and the successes we have achieved, such as recovering £48k for a couple who had been the victims of a bank phone call scam and the elderly couple whose £3k+ parking tickets I managed to have waived. However, what I am able to offer is limited because it is unpaid. I am not able to accept conduct of cases that go beyond initial advice and require legal representation because I do not have the resources to extend the pro bono service I provide.

I note that the Justice Minister is proposing that such a service should be introduced and funded. Well, the service already exists, is one that works and should be extended. However, I applaud the suggestion that the service is one that should be funded. That said, in my experience, initial advice, whilst helpful and, at times, productive, in the majority of cases, those whom I see are in desperate need of further professional legal representation. Because of the legal aid cuts, most of family law has been removed from the scope of legal aid. This needs to change, so that when families are fractured wholistic professional support is provided at the point of need.

I welcome the opportunity to share my experience and to assist in whatever way possible to extend the type of service I already operate and, in doing so, to increase and facilitate access to justice.

See the original article on The Times website here (subscription needed):

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