A report published this week
June) provides a damning assessment of the legal aid system’s effectiveness in providing advice and support to people who have suffered discrimination.
Prior to the introduction of changes to legal aid by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) in April 2013, face-to-face advice on discrimination law issues was more readily available from solicitors’ firms and other providers. From 2013, a mandatory telephone gateway service was introduced for all discrimination law enquiries. The new research, published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), shows that only 0.5 per cent of enquiries from the public via the gateway service led to the obtaining of representation in court.
The figures for calls to the telephone service from 2013/14 to 2017/18 breakdown as follows (see pages 22–23 of the report):
•33,150 initial enquires received by the operator service
•17,717 passed on to the legal aid providers
•7,768 people received some casework assistance
•only 43 received representation in court
The government had also estimated that 10 per cent of discrimination cases through the telephone service would need to be referred to face-to-face providers for assistance. Based on the figures for people who received some help, the researchers estimated that 777 cases should have been referred to face-to-face services, but only 18 were (see page 16). One specialist advisor admitted that they were discouraged from providing face-to-face services due to the cost (see page 19).
A mere 13 per cent of the cases that passed through the service led to a satisfactory conclusion for the client (see page 23). One client told the researchers that the service was ‘[n]o help at all. I think they misunderstood, completely, my case’ (see page 24).
According to the report, some advice providers are concerned about the quality of the service offered. A discrimination lawyer told researchers that a couple of clients that they had encouraged to ring the gateway service were told, ‘things like, “That’s not discrimination”, when it clearly has been’ (see page 45).
Responding to the report, LAG’s director Carol Storer said, 'The government has recognised that the gateway service is not meeting its objectives, but it needs to act quickly on the EHRC’s recommendations if people who have suffered from discrimination are to get the help they need.'
Among the EHRC’s recommendations are:
•changing guidance to encourage a greater number of cases to receive support through the legal aid exceptional case funding system (see page 39);
•alterations to the qualifying conditions for legal aid, including the immediate reinstatement of the passporting system for clients on eligible benefits (see page 43); and
•more publicity around the availability of legal aid for discrimination cases (see page 46).