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England: Think tank recommends deploying legal advisers in GP surgeries to ensure access to civil justice

Advisers stationed at GP surgeries, council offices, libraries, and other convenient locations can help more people get more timely access to civil justice, according to a new think tank report.

The Social Market Foundation said that legal support for civil justice can better reach the those in need if located in places people go to when in distress – like GP surgeries.

The SMF found that changes in government legal aid rules have drastically limited support for the poorest and those who remain digitally excluded, even though civil justice issues remain extremely common.

Over two-thirds of people have had a civil justice issue in the last four years, and about a fifth have faced multiple such issues. However, over the last decade, half a million fewer cases are taken on by legal aid.

The SMF’s findings are presented in a briefing paper sponsored by AIG.

Experts at the SMF-convened seminar noted that timely intervention, through medical-legal partnerships, is urgently needed to “avoid crises occurring” due to the “snowball effect” – for example, when family breakdown may lead to homelessness, which can further lead to health issues that affect one’s job.

Medical-legal partnerships have been in place in the USA for decades. However, past attempts to better coordinate legal assistance in England and Wales under the Labour government were quickly scrapped, despite inspiring similar initiatives in Australia. For example, the states of New South Wales and Queensland both bring together stakeholders such as legal aid, courts and family and domestic violence services to identify ways that they can support one another. One expert participant said that the UK has gone from leading on civil justice, to becoming “rather peripheral”.

In addition to co-locating and coordinating services, SMF recommendations include:

  • Reversing cuts to civil legal aid, which some estimates suggest would save the government money across public services for future issues.
  • Collecting better and more timely data through a biannual Civil Justice Survey for England and Wales. The last government survey on the topic was carried out in 2014/15.

Dr Aveek Bhattacharya, SMF chief economist, said: “Civil justice is less attention-grabbing than criminal justice, but that shouldn’t lead us to underestimate its importance. Most of us will experience some form of civil justice issue in the next few years, be it debt difficulties, a dispute with neighbours, a problem with housing or being mis-sold a good or service.

“These issues have a tendency to escalate, so we shouldn’t expect people just to muddle along, at a cost to their health, wellbeing and financial security. Instead, it is critical to provide accessible and timely interventions, available to people where they are. That requires creative and joined-up thinking to ensure that the relevant services work together and put the people they serve first.”

Rhodri Williams, head of international public policy at AIG, said: “We are proud to have supported the work of the Social Market Foundation in highlighting inequities and disadvantage in the criminal justice system. By focusing attention on a simple and practical way to help people obtain timely access to civil justice, this important report is a timely and constructive contribution to evolving policy thinking.”

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