Telephone gateway – or barrier?

A fortnight ago the Legal Aid, Punishment and Sentencing of Offenders Act received Royal Assent. It’s just 18 months since the legal aid reforms were first put forward by the Ministry of Justice. Since then, the Government has succeeded in making dramatic changes to the legal aid system.

Not only has the scope of legal aid been cut but the way it’s delivered will now change.

Those in need of legal advice, but unable to pay for it, will no longer be able to choose to receive their legal advice face-to-face. The Ministry of Justice wants a ‘telephone gateway’ – only very limited groups of clients will be able to receive assistance in person – and only after using the phone in the first instance. And the areas of law where this new phone-only advice is to be piloted? Discrimination, special educational needs and debt – and the Government has made clear that it intends to roll out the mandatory telephone gateway to other areas in future.

Shelter worked with others to amend the Bill to overturn the mandatory telephone provisions. Why are we so concerned? After all, phone services are not new. Shelter has been providing them for many years.

The issue here is not with telephone advice per se. It is making it mandatory.

Research into housing problems shows that very vulnerable clients and urgent problems tend towards face-to-face services. The most likely beneficial outcome of telephone advice is that people are enabled to self-help. More tangible outcomes such as actually being housed or getting disrepair sorted are rarely achieved by advice on the phone, but are much more likely to result from face-to-face advice.

At Shelter we are all for high quality phone services; we know they play an essential role in reaching those unable or unwilling to access help through other means. Extending channels can increase choice and make it more likely that problems will be resolved at an early stage. However if one channel is made mandatory or funded at the expense of others, choice is taken away.

No channels should be made mandatory. To do so is to create a starting line that everyone has to struggle up to before they can access a service – and some simply won’t make it.