Family and Employment law assistance in legal advice deserts
Four years have passed since our Employment and Family lawyers began staffing weekly legal advice clinic appointments for what was at the time a unique set-up. Our clinics partnership with Plymouth Citizens Advice and Legal Advice Centres was a first of its kind, launched in November 2019 as a webcam clinic, pre-pandemic when legal advice clinic appointments via webcam were virtually unheard of. The collaboration was set-up so that our lawyers, from their offices in London, Guildford and Cheltenham, could direct their support to a geographic area of great legal need, namely Plymouth and the South-West.
Since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (“LASPO”) and the resulting massive budget cuts to the legal aid sector, there are significant gaps in access to justice across England. These gaps are particularly stark in parts of the country known as “legal aid / legal advice deserts” where legal aid and advice provision has been decimated and advice is near impossible to access – Plymouth and the South-West sit in the heart of what is in effect a legal advice desert.
When the pandemic hit, the clinic structure for remote advice was already there, meaning that our lawyers were able to continue providing this weekly service from their kitchens and living rooms throughout lockdowns. COVID-19 presented a major challenge for community Legal Advice Centres and the people they supported. The only way that many people on low incomes can get any legal advice at all is through pro bono clinics and keeping this support going as Advice Centres temporarily shut their doors and our lawyers worked at home was critically important.
In the post-lockdown world, Charles Russell Speechlys continues to work closely with our clinic partners to learn what new structure works best for their teams as well as the individuals attending the appointments. Remaining mainly a telephone clinic, albeit with an offering of webcam appointments where needed, our lawyers continue to staff the weekly Employment Law and Family Law appointments.
Commenting on the collaborative project, Vicky Jones, Project Manager at Citizens Advice Plymouth outlined “The impact that this project has had on clients’ lives cannot be overstated. My team at Plymouth can provide general information and limited advice on legal issues but, with family and employment law in particular, nothing can beat having the opportunity to discuss your issues with a specialist solicitor. The people who come through our doors often cannot afford representation and fall outside of the legal aid scope. This weekly clinic in partnership with Charles Russell Speechlys and University House Legal Advice Centre has given them somewhere to turn.”
Over the past four years, we have had 50 lawyers staff the clinic appointments. Combined, they have worked almost 1,300 hours on the clinic and assisted over 320 individuals on issues ranging from domestic abuse and childcare arrangements, to unfair dismissal and discrimination. Speaking on her championing of the Employment clinic, Sara Wilson, Legal Director in our Cheltenham Employment team noted “With the ongoing cost of living crisis and the resulting impact on people’s lives, I am really proud that my team is able to support individuals who are in often low-paid and precarious jobs to help them understand and assert their employment rights against unscrupulous or just ill-informed employers. We advise on a whole range of issues from unpaid wages to discrimination and navigating ACAS early conciliation.”
In May 2023, we began a pilot expansion of the Family clinic, partnering with specialist Family lawyers at law firms Withers and Hunters to enable increased support for the weekly appointments. Sarah Higgins, Partner in the Family team and an active volunteer with the clinic, outlined “We are really pleased to have been able to expand our pro bono collaboration by enlisting the help of two other specialist family teams at Withers and Hunters, and we hope to be able to expand further over the coming months. Ideally, we want to be able to provide the infrastructure to channel the capacity and willingness of specialist family lawyers to be able to meet the needs for family law advice in legal advice deserts across the country.”