Research led by Prof Morag McDermont of University of Bristol Law School has explored the ways in which advice organisations such as Citizens Advice (CA) have become key actors in legal arenas, particularly for citizens who face the most disadvantage in upholding their rights. Findings from a four year study in partnership with Strathclyde University, highlight the importance of free-to-access advice in enabling people to tackle problems and engage with the legal and regulatory frameworks that govern their lives.
The advice sector, however, is under threat, as a new book Advising in Austerity: Reflections on challenging times for advice agencies (edited by Samuel Kirwan and published by Policy Press ) demonstrates. The book, co-written by the research team and advisers in the field, highlights both the possibilities and the challenges for an advice sector that largely relies on volunteers to provide a vital interface between citizens and the everyday problems of debt, health, employment and much more. Despite the skills and enthusiasm of the workforce, many services are caught between rising demand and large-scale funding cuts, as traditional sources of revenue from local authorities and legal aid are dramatically reduced. Across the network, reductions in core funding are forcing agencies to reduce or reconfigure services. In particular, the face-to-face, generalist advice model that provides a holistic assessment of client’s problems is under pressure as services are reduced in favour of telephone or online support.
Engaging with law: the value of good advice
The role of volunteer advisors as ‘legal’ actors is disputed, not least amongst volunteer advisors themselves. Many of those interviewed for the project expressed ambiguity towards their role in providing ‘legal advice’, with one taking the view that “it is advice on the law but not legal advice so much”. Others considered themselves to be delivering advice derived from law, but were keen to distinguish their role from that of the solicitor/client relation. Recent government policy has been built on a clearer distinction. A Ministry of Justice paper which preceded major cuts to the Civil Legal Aid budget in 2012 suggested that volunteer advisors only dispensed ‘practical’ advice – undercutting the argument for the allocation of legal aid funds to advice services.
Advising in Austerity tells a different story. Using data from observing advisers at work, the researchers suggest that the advice interview is very much a site of engagement with the law. Advice is understood as a process of translation, whereby the problems expressed by a client are interpreted back to them in relation to available legal frameworks, creating the possibility of legal action. This role of bridging the gap between people’s issues and the law is crucial given the over-representation of vulnerable and disadvantaged people amongst CA clients, many of whom face significant barriers to upholding their rights. A 2015 study found that seven out of ten CA clients live in poverty. The inability of individuals to uphold their rights is understood as both a symptom and a cause of poverty and social exclusion. Feelings of disempowerment were common to research participant’s experiences of seeking to access statutory services such as Universal Credit and Job Seekers Allowance, or seeking justice through the courts and tribunal service. Good advice work challenges this by enabling people to engage with the legal frameworks that impact upon their lives.
This work is underpinned by Citizens Advice service principles that are integral to the advice model provided; a free, impartial, face-to-face, independent service that is available to all. Many clients have complex problems; the initial interview between adviser and client is holistic in nature, aiming to help the client unravel their issues in order to create clarity, and explore solutions. Advisors seek to empower clients to take action through developing understanding and creating ownership of problems, which in turn improves people’s capacity to cope better in the future.
Funding cuts and access to justice
Cuts to the Civil Legal Aid budget have led to a huge contraction of the availability of free legal advice for many people – a gap that the advice sector is fighting to fill despite many agencies having lost Legal Aid Contracts themselves. This has removed a key source of funding for specialist services offered by advice agencies in areas such as employment law, and led to a decline in the provision of representation for claimants pursuing a claim. At the same time, access to key rights and entitlements have been restricted under austerity policies. The introduction of fees of up to £1200 to take a claim to an Employment Tribunal has hit particularly hard, leading to many being unable to pursue legal action when employment rights are denied.
Such restrictions are driving the social need for advice, with many services reporting rising demand which far outstrips capacity. Citizens Advice Bristol (CAB) are representative of this trend as Director Sue Evans explains:
“The demand for our services keeps growing and seems to have no upper limit; everyday our advice slots are full within 10 minutes of opening. In a commercial business model we would be expanding to meet demand and the service would be growing, but traditional funding sources such as legal aid and local authority budgets are shrinking so instead, we have to consider reducing our services”
The Bristol office has a team of 12 full time and 18 part time staff, and over 100 volunteers, which allowed them to deal with over 36,000 enquiries last year on a budget of only £70,000. The value of the volunteer commitment is calculated to be in excess of £500,000. Bristol City Council calculates the monetary value that CAB brings to the city each year as £4.1m. Such figures suggest that advice services represent extraordinary value for money. Indeed given the scale of the volunteer commitment this could be David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ in action, except that huge ‘austerity’ cuts to local authority budgets are forcing them to drastically reduce expenditure on key services. Local Citizens Advice in Newcastle, Manchester and Liverpool are amongst many to have had funding cuts in excess of 50% in recent years. Without the ‘core’ funding for basic infrastructure and paid staff, the volunteer effort would not be possible.
New ideas for partnership working
Maintaining face-to-face and ‘holistic’ advice services in an unstable funding environment requires creative solutions. The University of Bristol, in collaboration with local Citizens Advice is launching a new project: ‘Advising in austerity: how Citizens Advice can adapt to uncertain times’, which will examine how partnership working between universities and local Citizens Advice can be formalised, opening up a mutually beneficial sharing of expertise and resources.
The project will focus on how links between university law clinics and advice agencies can be developed into formalised pathways, enabling the placement of students pursuing Clinical Legal Education degrees into advice service projects. This practical advice work would form a recognised part of the degree course, equipping students with valuable experience of advice provision and boosting employability. The joint projects would bring a sustainable resource to advice services, supporting the continued provision of face to face advice work.
The advice sector is facing huge challenges which go beyond the solutions proposed here. However such partnership working can play a key role in ensuring the continuation of advice services, fulfilling the key principles of free, face-to-face advice available to all. Such advice services are essential to support access to justice for all.