Committee (1st Day) (Continued)

Part of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – in the House of Lords at 9:30 pm on 20th December 2011.

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Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Liberal Democrat 9:30 pm, 20th December 2011

My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendments 114 and 116 and to all the principles that lie behind the amendments in this group. We are discussing a mandatory telephone gateway and whether it can on its own deliver equal and effective access to legal aid. Currently, signposting comes from a variety of sources such as library information desks, council customer services, GP surgeries, councillors' and MPs' surgeries, voluntary and public organisations, charities and so on. They all currently direct people to CAB, law centres and voluntary organisations such as Shelter. That system works. In the main, the signposting is of high quality and gets people who need help to the right advice from the most appropriate place.

There is a great danger in a call-centre approach. I hope that that is not what the Government intend, but a call-centre approach is dependent upon speed and low costs as its main drivers. The telephone can be very good, but in this case it would be very good only if: first, individuals can communicate via the telephone-for example, there could be significant levels of documentation to quote from, and there is therefore a strong probability of complexity in an inquiry; secondly, if individuals have the confidence to clearly prepare what they need to say and then say it; and thirdly and crucially, if the quality of the staff is sufficient to answer the initial inquiry in terms of their legal knowledge and ability to prompt the facts to come out in conversation. In conclusion, a telephone gateway should have, as a minimum, law graduates or experienced advice workers taking the initial calls, not unqualified generalists who may fail to pass on a call that should be passed on, or who may fail to diagnose a case because they think it is out of scope, when actually something that is related to it is within scope.

The telephone can never be the only means of accessing legal aid-nor should be electronic variations such as the internet and so on. Sometimes a face-to-face initial interview can be a more effective and cheaper option than the telephone or the web. We should bear it in mind that large numbers of households in the UK do not have access to broadband or the internet and are reliant upon public services such as public libraries and schools for access. Around a quarter of households simply do not have any access to that means of communication. Normally, but not necessarily, very many members of those households will be poor and unable to afford the relevant equipment. Expecting them to communicate across the web could be a significant problem.

Most contact for assessing an initial inquiry is currently face-to-face. I have not followed why, if someone accesses, say, a CAB, law centre or public library, the initial face-to-face inquiry that has already taken place cannot then be referred for another face-to-face discussion. Why should there be the additional cost of an extra loop in the system by generating a computer record that can then be accessed by a range of other people?

I have concluded that we must have a range of providers that can address the needs of all those likely to require help, some of whom may not speak English well. I noted recently research from the USA that shows that one-fifth of people who receive telephone advice do not act upon it because they have not fully understood what the advice actually means.

There is a further issue around cost. Is it cheaper? Figures have been quoted of savings of between £50 million and £70 million. In my view, the cost could prove to be much less than that because the current calculations compare the cost of face-to-face interviews with the cost of a telephone call via a community advice line, but they are not directly comparable because those who use the latter are a self-selecting group who are content and confident with using a telephone.

We need to look at a whole range of issues more deeply. I hope that my noble friend will be willing to undertake further work on the advisability of a single mandatory channel; that further work will be done on the relative costs involved; and that the proposal's impact on equality and access to justice will be looked at very closely. There are real dangers that some of those most in need of help will fail to secure it through a mandatory telephone gateway.