In the three months to November 2020, redundancies reached a record high of 14.2 per 1,000 jobs
. Recent Resolution Foundation research
shows that of those who lost their jobs, the rate was highest for 18–24-year-olds, Black, Asian and minority ethnic workers, and the low paid. The employment effects of the COVID-19 crisis have borne down particularly hard on London and the most deprived areas of the country. ELAN continues to meet regularly to coordinate advice agencies’ responses to these problems.
While many of these redundancies cannot be challenged, there is often evidence of discrimination in the way they have been implemented and of payments being incorrectly calculated. Working mothers, those on maternity leave
and zero-hours workers are among the hardest hit. Prompt legal advice in such cases can be crucial.
These are often complex cases requiring detailed analysis. Even before the pandemic, the advice sector faced many challenges in its ability to meet the demand for employment law advice. This is now exacerbated with services being online, the difficulty of supervising volunteers remotely and the significant increase in demand. EU migrant workers seeking advice on their rights to remain in the UK are presenting additional demand.
The Employment Legal Advice Network (ELAN) has tried to address these problems through a number of initiatives: using retired employment judges as mentors; collaborating on a free mediation service
; improving the use of volunteers; and coordinating access to training, information sharing and specialist advice. However, it is time for joined-up thinking on how to make this work scalable and sustainable in the longer term.
At the Law Centres Network Annual Conference in December 2020, I chaired a session on funding employment work. There are some fantastic examples of the employment advice sector seeking to create sustainable and scalable funding streams, including: insurance policies; grant funding; legal help contracts for discrimination cases; damages-based agreements (DBAs); fixed fees for follow-up work; and collaboration with other sectors and other advice providers.
The advice sector is adept at navigating various income streams but there are some serious problems facing the employment sector. Resourcing issues exist now and will continue to do so unless action is taken. Young lawyers need security, sufficient pay and supervision, yet many contracts in the employment advice sector are for six months and pay is low when compared with trade unions or private practice alternatives. Vacancies are often filled with non-qualified advisers, making supervision even more critical at a time when the pandemic makes opportunities to learn from others and accessing supervision more challenging.
Even without the resourcing obstacles, for all the innovation in seeking funding, there is no magic, one-size-fits-all solution and there are barriers to making the finances work. Drawing on interviews prior to the conference, Sarah Forsyth from South West London Law Centres provided examples of how, following an initial free legal advice session, even clients with good cases and some financial means are reluctant to pay for further services. Barbara Likulunga of Bristol Law Centre provided strong financial reasons why DBAs do not make sense in Bristol. Others talk of the frustrations of only being able to do so much for clients when their grants prohibit them taking on casework and discrimination contracts are difficult to make work.
So how can the employment advice sector move forward? The simple answer is: together. Collaboration can help this sector in many ways:
•A collective voice – the employment advice sector faces challenges, some common to all sectors and some unique, including the vast competition for talent in this area. Identifying those challenges and collaborating to develop strategies will help the sector prepare better for the future.
•A collective identity – employment advice workers’ passion for helping their clients is the USP of the sector and needs to go hand in hand with quality. Through development of a collective identity, there can be greater learning, mentoring and training. The sector can, and should, be the go-to place for excellent service that encompasses advice but also an examination of alternative solutions – such as mediation – to workplace issues.
•Improving efficiency – this could be achieved through shared administrative and triage services, shared public legal education tools and technical solutions, and by deploying specialist advisers across a number of different agencies.
•Exploring other funding options – collaborating with others to draw on funding from other sectors, including local IAPT (improving access to psychological therapies) services, can help create sustainable, scalable funding streams.
Although ELAN focuses on London’s employment advice sector, even if you are outside the capital, you are welcome to join the network’s mailing list and receive updates and training recordings. You can find out more through the website