We have a number of projects, they help provide advice to different people for different purposes.
This project aims to define a new model of advice and advocacy for ourusers with complex health and social needs. Some of our users repeatedly call upon services such as ours for help on a wide range of matters. Through this project we provide front-loaded support to targeted individuals over a number of months, in order to help resolve problems which contribute to them reaching crisis point on a regular basis.
This project is based around volunteer law students and pro bono minded lawyers. Through the project we are supporting appointed ‘advocates’ to undertake disability appeal casework and to provide advocacy at the First Tier Tribunal. Our work in this area has really expanded. We now take on more disability benefit appeals than any other NGO in England & Wales. We also now accept referrals under this project from Cornwall and Devon.
The overall aim of this project is to promote and protect the rights of disabled people in the workplace. The work is focused on early intervention in order to prevent an employed disabled person from becoming unemployed and subject to potentially a life on state benefits.
In February 2016, our first Family Law Clinic went ‘live’. It is weekly clinic with a focus on domestic violence. The clinic is a collaboration between ourselves and six international law firms. Typical casework includes helping DV victims obtain non-molestation orders. In January 2021 we opened our second weekly Family Law Clinic, this clinic is run with pro bono support from one of our longstanding law firm partners.
This clinic was set up in order to help with the growing housing crisis in London. It is a weekly morning clinic to reflect the working patterns of the three USA law firms who are providing pro bono lawyers to staff the clinic.
In recent years, there has been the development by GPs and other clinical staff of what is commonly now known as Social Prescribing, whereby patients can be referred to non-clinical sources of support within the community. Whilst this work is of real benefit there is now a growing need to provide community-based medical practitioners with more potent tools to help combat systemic discrimination of the unwell within our society. Three years ago we established a legal clinic providing free specialist employment law advice in a health setting. Initial results are very encouraging and are demonstrating the benefits of early expert legal advice. The key issue here is developing a body of evidence about the merits of early intervention.
Originally we established a webcam advice clinic in partnership with a community organisation based in Falmouth. The bulk of the advice is provided directly by our own lawyers. In addition to our work in Falmouth, we are developing a number of projects around webcam based services. As part of this work we have developed our own webcam platform, which will help pro bono minded lawyers and law students to remotely take part in access to justice projects with us.
On the 5th November 2018 we went “live” with our webcam ‘family law duty desk’, at Truro Combined Courts. This duty desk provides assistance with section 8 private child arrangement cases and DV. On the 15th October 2019 we went “live” with a similar duty desk at Bodmin Combined Courts. In December 2019, in partnership with Charles Russell Speechlys LLP, we went “live” with a webcam Family Law Clinic hosted by Plymouth Citizens Advice. In September 2020, this partnership with Charles Russell Speechlys LLP and Plymouth Citizens Advice also went “live” with a separate Employment Law Clinic.
In June 2020, we went “live” with our Advice Portal in Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Newham. Our experience at providing remote advice was at the heart of its development. The portal is principally aimed at supporting generalist advice agencies to undertake specialist legal casework. Users must register to access the portal. This allows us to target the portal where it is needed most. To date, the portal has been very well received, and we have attracted significant funding for this project from a variety of sources.
Our work focus is on the most vulnerable, and a great deal of our casework is on behalf of people who have complex health and social needs. It is therefore important to us that technology we use does not add to barriers that they face. We embrace the use of new technology but in a way that is very mindful of the realities of peoples’ lives. Our view on the use of technology is to use it to provide access to specialist lawyers, rather than in lieu of it.
With this in mind, we have created an ‘advice portal’. This is linked to our webcam platform and, in part, includes an electronic booking system aimed at targeted community advice agencies and other key stakeholders. From the 22nd June 2020, each week, ‘advice slots’ on critical legal matters have been made available. It is entirely up to the target local advice networks who, amongst their number, books places on the available slots.
Advice workers can book an appointment to seek support from us to progress a case themselves, or they can make a referral by appointment for us to advise someone directly.
A big issue for our sector is a lack of second-tier support, and an inability to access specialist legal support and casework services. Our portal provides access and ownership to community advice workers. This is a radical model which aims to define a new model of advice and advocacy provision during these challenging times.
Through the portal, community advice workers are also able to access self-help information and professional development support.
From the 22nd June 2020, we have made large numbers of appointments available each week in four critical support areas:
We monitor take-up, and provided we have the capacity, we release further appointment slots if necessary.
From the 21st September 2020, we have provided access to the portal to every relevant advice and advocacy organisation in Cornwall and Devon. This is our way of seeking to help provide access to justice for as many people as possible in the advice deserts of the West Country. The portal covers critical areas of law which mirror the issues covered by our London based advice clinics/projects, which we run in partnership with corporate law firms. This means that cases booked through our portal will, in part, be fed through to our existing London based clinics/projects.
There are opportunities here for existing partners to assist us in an additional area of law. There are also opportunities for new partners to develop secondary specialism.
Since 2012, we have developed work around legal expenses insurance (LEI) in order to help fund tribunal and court work. Quite often our users do not know that they have such cover. At first contact, we have changed our protocols to establish whether users can take advantage of any insurance and financial products which contain LEI.
Our work and thinking around LEI has developed in recent months, and we are in contact with a large number of stakeholders in order to take this work forward. We believe micro-insurance (including a stripped down version of LEI) should play a key role in helping to develop community resilience, and should also form a key part of anti-poverty work. Presently, we are in detailed discussions with a niche insurance body in order to develop a stripped down version of LEI, which is based around key social welfare law matters and costs less than 50p per month.
The SQE pathway to becoming a solicitor starts from September 2021, although law schools are taking on SQE students from September 2020 knowing that the assessment framework is coming. The BPP law school have confirmed that the SQE can be packaged as an apprenticeship. This, together with the recent rule changes to the Apprenticeship Levy provide opportunities for commercial law firms to, in effect, donate a proportion of their Levy to fund apprenticeships/fellowships in the advice sector.
In September 2020 we welcomed our first new University House Fellows. The Fellows, six in total, will be undertaking solicitor apprenticeships in partnership with BPP. This is based on the new SQE1 and SQE2 pathway to becoming a solicitor. We have employed three directly, and we are supporting the other three remotely. This initiative is linked to our Advice Portal, and both projects are part of our efforts to help address the skills shortage in our sector. In addition to training as solicitors, the Fellows will also undertake projects which focus on access to justice issues. We want to thank several corporate partners for helping to make this possible through their donations of Apprenticeship Levy.
Over the past 8 years we have developed our own bespoke CMS. This has been funded by Clifford Chance LLP. We have given our system free of any charge to partner organisations in our sector, including the Mary Ward Centre, Account3 Ltd and the Bromley By Bow Centre. This is a real saving for them. We are now receiving regular contacts concerning our CMS, largely because of a lack of appropriate systems available to our sector.