“MPs’ caseworkers are striving to meet the needs of their constituents, but they are overwhelmed.”
We will all encounter Lady Justice at some point in our lives. For some, the encounter will be a pleasant one: marriage, moving into a new home, buying a car through a leasing arrangement, getting a permit to work in a country that we’ve always wanted to see. For many others, however, this will be because of marriage breakdown, a child with special needs who needs help, or a dispute with a neighbour; or because of debt and money trouble, immigration problems or housing issues.
A proportion of those people will have family or communities that may be able to help. Some will have pockets deep enough to be able to pay for legal representation. But others – many others – lack the support to have their rights explained to them, to recognise when something is, in fact, not just unfair, but a legal problem with solutions within the law. When that happens, those people may approach their local MP to go in to bat on their behalf.
Mind the gap: an assessment of unmet legal need in London
(2017) was the result of a study by City law firm Hogan Lovells, which worked with the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Pro Bono to canvass 21 London MPs and observe more than 300 constituent interviews, and found that 89 per cent of appointments related to one or more legal problems. Housing, immigration and welfare benefits problems featured most prominently, and almost a quarter were caused or exacerbated by issues around disability.1See May 2017 Legal Action 7.
The report noted that while MP intervention was useful to the constituent in speeding up a process, utilising an MP’s contacts within a local authority or in supporting an application, there were other cases where an MP’s surgery was consulted because of an ineligibility for legal aid and an inability to pay for legal advice. In some instances, caseworkers lacked the resources to provide specialist advice and knew very little about legal or referral sources. Sometimes, they weren’t even aware of the legal element of their constituent’s problem.
The APPG on Legal Aid, supported by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) and Young Legal Aid Lawyers, and with the aid of a grant from The Legal Education Foundation, has been able to recruit two project workers, me and my colleague Christine Peace, to gather information on these issues. To date, we have spoken to 31 MPs and councillors of 10 local authorities across the country to try to establish whether they are able to recognise issues with legal solutions, or when constituents may be eligible for legal aid.
What we have seen mirrors Hogan Lovells’ findings: MPs’ caseworkers are striving to meet the needs of their constituents, but are overwhelmed by demand, urgency, complexity, a lack of resources and the weight of expectation. They don’t always have ready access to resources to identify legal issues and make referrals, and very few have any formal legal training. There is also a certain reputational pressure on them. Yet the work is still more than likely to be undertaken in-house than referred.
These discussions identified a number of areas on which the people we spoke to felt that further training would be useful:
•legal aid (what remains in scope, the means and merits test, and referring to legal aid providers);
•identifying legal issues;
•immigration law; and
On 1 November 2017, LAPG held a drinks reception at Portcullis House. The event aimed to: (i) launch a training programme designed for MPs and their caseworkers; and (ii) publicise resources and websites useful to caseworkers. Fifteen stallholders from a variety of backgrounds, including the Housing Law Practitioners Association (HLPA), the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association (ILPA) and Lasa, demonstrated a range of websites, guides and tools to the attending MPs and their casework teams.
The reception was introduced by Karen Buck MP, chair of the APPG on Legal Aid, and vice-chairs Yvonne Fovargue MP and Alex Chalk MP. The three MPs all spoke about the wonderful work that their caseworkers did among their constituents and welcomed both the training and resource initiatives. In total, 16 MPs from across the major parties attended and met with stakeholders from the legal aid profession, and over 50 caseworkers signed up to attend our pilot training course.
The Casework and Your Constituents free training course has been designed in collaboration with a number of partner organisations, including HLPA, ILPA and LawWorks, and we have now delivered the following training modules in Westminster:
•An Introduction to Legal Aid;
•Identifying Legal Issues (in conjunction with LawWorks and the APPG on Pro Bono);
•An Introduction to Immigration Law (in association with ILPA); and
•An Introduction to Housing Law (in association with HLPA).
Feedback from the attendees was extremely positive with all indicating that the sessions had assisted a great deal in their understanding of the law in these areas and about what resources are available.
We will be holding further training for MPs, caseworkers and local authority councillors in Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff, and building on relationships that we are fostering with these policy-makers to encourage them to see the importance of legal aid as a fundamental pillar of the principle of justice, and not just an optional extra.