Authors:James Sandbach
Last updated:2023-11-10
Elected surgery
James Sandbach discusses a new report from Hogan Lovells that exposes the challenge of unmet legal needs for MPs and their caseworkers.
A consistent message from the MPs is that Law Centres and Citizens Advice are operating at full capacity and are overwhelmed by the number of people seeking legal advice.
MPs have always carried a heavy casework burden in their constituencies; holding constituency surgeries on Fridays and dealing with the constituency office postbag after returning from the parliamentary week in Westminster has become an almost de facto part of the job. Indeed, parliament allocates every MP a budget to set up and run a constituency office, usually employing at least one member of staff to help with casework. Constituents contact MPs with any number of enquiries, from national policy issues and local issues to personal issues and requests for help with specific problems in their lives – anything from parking tickets to asylum claims.
An emerging issue has been the level of complex legal problems presenting at MPs’ surgeries; at the same time, public-facing advice and legal support services have come under huge funding pressures as the legal aid cuts continue to bite. Young Legal Aid Lawyers first drew attention to this in a report in March 2012 (Nowhere else to turn: the impact of legal aid cuts on MPs’ ability to help their constituents). It found that constituents frequently turn to MPs as a last resort when they have been unable to resolve their legal problems, but there is a limit to the assistance that MPs are able to provide.
Five years on, Hogan Lovells, as part of its London pro bono programme, decided to put some of its resources into examining what was happening in London MPs’ surgeries in respect of legal problems and enabling its trainees and volunteers to see MPs’ casework first-hand. The firm worked with the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Pro Bono to design a survey and process for reviewing MPs’ casework, with the APPG facilitating introductions.
A total of 21 MPs participated, with volunteers from Hogan Lovells attending 40 surgeries, observing 325 constituents’ appointments throughout October and November 2016. Constituents signed consent forms allowing Hogan Lovells and the APPG on Pro Bono to use and report on their information on an anonymous basis and to develop and publish aggregate statistics. Volunteers also recorded any anecdotal information provided by MPs and their caseworkers, and a further survey was circulated to MPs and their caseworkers by email to obtain qualitative data following attendance at the surgeries. In a few cases, Hogan Lovells accepted referrals from the surgeries where it was expressly requested to assist and was able to provide pro bono support.
The report, Mind the gap: an assessment of unmet legal need in London, is the result of this project. Surgeries of MPs from across the political spectrum were observed: five were Conservative MPs, 15 were Labour MPs and one was a Liberal Democrat MP. The surgeries varied in format. In some, constituents were initially seen by caseworkers and then, potentially, referred to the MP; in others, the caseworkers had already triaged the issues prior to the surgery so that all the constituents who attended met with the MP. Some surgeries only saw four or five constituents whereas others saw up to 35.
A key methodological challenge for the research was to identify ‘legal’ and ‘non-legal’ issues presenting in surgeries, to disaggregate these into sub-categories of legal problems, and to quality-check the data. The approach Hogan Lovells took adopted the following definitions: a ‘legal’ problem is one for which there might be a legal remedy without regard to the merits of the legal issue, whereas a ‘non-legal’ problem is one for which there is no legal remedy.
Numerous legal difficulties
With these obstacles surmounted through training, coding problems and testing the approach, the results are hugely fascinating: of 352 issues raised, 89 per cent (315) were legal. The most common problems were with:
housing (37 per cent);
immigration (23 per cent); and
welfare benefits (13 per cent).
A full breakdown of the types of issues raised within these categories can be seen in the pie charts overleaf.
Advice agencies under pressure
A consistent message from the MPs is that while such issues can be referred to Law Centres and Citizens Advice, these agencies are operating at full capacity and are overwhelmed by the number of people seeking legal advice. Referral, though, was very much the preferred strategy, with MPs not holding themselves out as legal advisers. The report concluded that:
It is evident that law firms, external agencies and charities are vital both to MPs and to constituents’ access to justice. First, they offer specialist advice and assistance together with substantial experience. Second, they are able to receive referrals from MPs (capacity permitting), thereby relieving time for MPs and their caseworkers. Third, they can offer an alternative source of help where MPs are unable to assist with wider legal issues or do not have the required knowledge (page 19).
A completely unexpected finding was that, in a few rare cases, MPs were ‘using their own budgets to pay for their constituents to receive legal advice’.
A completely unexpected finding, though, was that, in a few rare cases, MPs were ‘using their own budgets to pay for their constituents to receive legal advice’ (page 19). Many MPs’ offices also felt that they lacked the resources or know-how to be able to identify when legal advice is required and when legal aid might be available.
The report does refer to one or two cases where MPs were giving advice themselves; for example, one constituent was incorrectly advised that autism is not a disability. Often, MPs would adopt a policy advocacy approach, for example, in challenging their local councils on housing allocations policies, gate-keeping and procedure in declaring people intentionally homeless.
London and beyond
Overall, the report, while clearly reflective of issues in London, is reminiscent of many other unmet legal needs studies. It is interesting, for example, that the report finds that welfare benefits issues were often coupled with other issues such as housing, family, debt or immigration. In the concluding chapter, the report summarises that:
On the whole, the percentage of legal issues presented at MPs’ surgeries was higher than anticipated prior to the project and higher than estimated by the majority of caseworkers and MPs. One reason for this may be a misapprehension of how much the law and our rights influence the day to day lives of people living in London (page 28).
The report is rounded off with seven recommendations around training for MPs’ offices, collaboration with advice charities, and a call for improved resources for advice charities, Law Centres and Citizens Advice, especially in the area of housing. Although limited to London, this is an important report that will hopefully be useful to MPs but also to the advice sector and the Ministry of Justice in the review of the cuts under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (held up by the general election but hopefully reinstated in the next parliament).
The credit, though, for getting this project together, undertaking the survey and delivering the research must go to the team at Hogan Lovells, especially the firm’s international pro bono director, Yasmin Waljee, for her vision, and also Sarah Michael, Harry Harvey and others for their sheer determination in getting in there, liaising diligently with MPs and their staff, and carrying out hours of patient observation and research. While the report has a strong message about the devastating impact of legal cuts, the heroic efforts of the Hogan Lovells team are a good example of how and where pro bono can add value.
The report was launched on 19 April in the House of Commons, the day after the surprise election had been called, with MPs due to vote on an early dissolution and about to spend a month in their constituencies engaging with voters. They would do well to take this report with them. Speaking at the launch event, Yasmin Waljee described how MPs’ surgeries are becoming ‘the A&E of legal support’. And as Alex Chalk MP, the APPG on Pro Bono chair who convened the launch, said in the report’s introduction, while MPs are ‘neither trained nor resourced to take on a role akin to that of a community lawyer, a good knowledge of the new landscape of legal resources is increasingly indispensable’.
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