Report (3rd Day)

Part of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – in the House of Lords at 7:36 pm on 12th March 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Coussins Baroness Coussins Crossbench 7:36 pm, 12th March 2012

My Lords, I support Amendments 74A and 74B, to which my name has been added. I declare an interest as president of the Money Advice Trust. In that capacity I have sat in as an observer at the National Debtline and the telephone helpline service that the Money Advice Trust runs, and I have heard first hand some up-to-date examples of the complexity of debt problems. This has brought me to the conclusion that the problem here-which these amendments are designed to resolve-is that when this proposal was framed in the Bill, sufficiently careful attention was not paid to the distinction between legal advice for people with debt management problems and general debt advice.

The Money Advice Trust tries to prevent existing debt problems running out of control, especially when they are tied up with other issues such as mental health problems or the threat of repossession. While we are talking about complex problems that require the advisers to be quite expert-and certainly sensitive-we are nevertheless talking about first-stage generalist debt advice. This is way beyond the point at which the client needs legal advice.

My understanding is that the Government view debt advice as "not strictly legal work" and feel comfortable about the withdrawal of legal aid because they expect that services such as the Money Advice Trust's debt helpline will provide appropriate advice services instead by phone-the withdrawal of legal aid is neither here nor there. As I understand it, this shift in service responsibility has not even been discussed, formally or informally, with the Money Advice Trust, and it is precisely because the kind of debt advice that the Money Advice Trust provides is different from advice that is "strictly legal" that legal aid needs to be retained.

The Money Advice Trust describes what it provides as "assisted self-help"-preparing budgets, helping clients seek additional benefits, helping them calculate acceptable repayments to creditors, and so on-but this is not legal advice. The Money Advice Trust is not equipped to provide legal advice; for example, it cannot advise clients on their chances of success in court or prepare them for court hearings, or how to get statutory debt relief or challenge collection and enforcement actions. If people needing formal legal advice were to rely on the Money Advice Trust, it simply would not have the capacity or the expertise to help them. The 200,000-odd people who go to that service every year would get much poorer outcomes.

In the long run, the cost of the gap in provision that would be created by the withdrawal of legal aid in these circumstances would end up being far greater, and would therefore frustrate and subvert the Government's perfectly reasonable objective of saving money. People with debt problems need the services of organisations such as the Money Advice Trust but they may also need formal legal advice, and when and if they do, it would be uncivilised to deny them access to legal aid.

I urge the Government to think again carefully about the distinction between legal advice and more generalist debt advice of the sort that this charity provides, and to accept these amendments.