According to a think tank report, advisers stationed at GP surgeries, council offices, libraries, and other convenient locations can help people access civil justice more quickly.
The Social Market Foundation said that legal support for civil justice (issues such as debt, family breakdown, or disputes over housing or employment) could better reach those in need if located in places people go to when in distress – like GP surgeries.
The SMF found that changes in government legal aid rules have drastically limited support for the poorest and those who remain digitally excluded, even though civil justice issues remain extremely common.
Over two-thirds of people have had a civil justice issue in the last four years, and about a fifth have faced multiple such issues. However, half a million fewer cases have been taken on by legal aid over the last decade.
The briefing comes as Health and Social Care White Paper emphasised joining up services to address people’s health needs. The consequences of civil justice issues include stress (53%), financial loss (33%), and even problems with drugs or alcohol – problems that place a burden on the NHS.
The SMF’s findings are presented in a briefing paper sponsored by AIG. The SMF retains full editorial independence.
Experts at the SMF-convened seminar noted that ‘timely’ intervention, through medical-legal partnerships, is urgently needed to ‘avoid crises occurring’ due to the ‘snowball effect’ – for example, when family breakdown may lead to homelessness, which can further lead to health issues that affect one’s job.
Medical-legal partnerships have been in place in the US for decades. However, past attempts to better coordinate legal assistance in England and Wales under the labour government were quickly scrapped – despite inspiring similar initiatives in Australia.
For example, the states of New South Wales and Queensland both bring together stakeholders such as legal aid, courts and family and domestic violence services to identify ways to support one another. One expert participant said that the UK has gone from leading on civil justice to becoming ‘rather peripheral’.
In addition to co-locating and coordinating services, SMF recommendations include:
- Some estimates suggest that reversing cuts to civil legal aid would save the Government money across public services for future issues.
- Collecting better and more timely data through a biannual Civil Justice Survey for England and Wales. The last government survey on the topic was conducted in 2014–2015.
Dr Aveek Bhattacharya, the SMF chief economist, said: ‘Civil justice is less attention-grabbing than criminal justice, but that shouldn’t lead us to underestimate its importance. Most of us will experience some form of civil justice issue in the next few years, be it debt difficulties, a dispute with neighbours, a problem with housing or being mis-sold a good or service.’
‘These issues tend to escalate, so we shouldn’t expect people to muddle along at a cost to their health, well-being and financial security. Instead, it is critical to provide accessible and timely interventions available to people where they are. That requires creative and joined-up thinking to ensure that the relevant services work together and put the people they serve first.’
Rhodri Williams, head of International Public Policy at AIG, said: ‘We are proud to have supported the work of the Social Market Foundation in highlighting inequities and disadvantages in the criminal justice system.’
‘By focusing attention on a simple and practical way to help people obtain timely access to civil justice , this important report is a timely and constructive contribution to evolving policy thinking.’
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