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Law firms, employers, insurers and even GPs could have part to play funding legal advice for the vulnerable

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Written by: Gavin Thompson | Posted 05 November 2015 16:02

Law firms, employers, insurers and even GPs could have part to play funding legal advice for the vulnerable
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Bristol’s law firms have been challenged to find more ways to help people who cannot afford legal advice.

The city is already leading the way in firms working together, such as four firms funding a trainee at the Bristol and Avon Law Centre.

But as cuts in legal aid funding bite, the profession is asking how the growing number of people without access to support can be helped and who should pay.

Guy Beringer, chairman of the Legal Education Foundation, said: “There is a significant sector of society who can no longer afford to take paid legal advice.”

Speaking to an audience of legal professionals at the offices of Osborne Clarke in Bristol, he said the situation had been made worse by recent cuts to legal aid but needed a bigger solution.

“Central government funding tends to follow economic cycles but the advice sector needs funding which is counter cyclical – the need is greater when the going gets tough,” he said.

“It’s not a problem we can simply hand to central government, our challenge is to look for new sources of funding and new channels of delivery.”

He said those who ultimately benefit from those legal services could be asked to help pay for them, such as insurance companies, employers and even health service providers such as GPs’ surgeries.

“Insurance companies will undoubtedly benefit from a range of early legal interventions which prevent disasters happening that they would have to pay for,” said Guy. “Or someone’s depression might be caused by debt or a housing problem which can be treated with legal advice.”

But one of the challenges is how to persuade people to pay now for something that would benefit them later.

He praised Bristol City Council, which he said was keen to take such a preventative approach.

And said Bristol was at the forefront, with firms working together to provide more help to people in need.

On the frontline of such work is the Bristol and Avon Law Centre, which employs 21 people from its offices in Stokes Croft.

Clare Carter and others

Centre director Clare Carter, above left, said: “The people we help are in really desperate circumstances. We help 2,000 clients a year but we turn away twice that number and demand is increasing as a result of the impact of austerity and welfare reform.”

The centre is funded by Bristol City and South Gloucestershire councils, legal aid contracts, lottery money, Comic Relief and other charitable support.

Four law firms, Osborne Clarke, TLT, DAC Beachcroft and Burges Salmon, have agreed to fund a trainee at the centre from next year and many lawyers give time to work in the centre’s pro-bono clinic.

It already works with universities, forming a student team to fight employment support appeals so far with a 95 per cent success rate securing so far more than £1 million of benefits for people who would otherwise have lost them.

Clare said: “There’s a huge amount of good will and good work being done here.”

But she asked the city’s law firms to consider doing more, whether through cash donations – an average case costs £250 to fight, supporting events, and creating and resourcing a pro-bono network.

Peter Clough, head of office at Osborne Clarke in Bristol, said such unpaid work had real benefits for law firms in terms of their reputation and staff recruitment and retention, and for the lawyers too.

“They come across situations they wouldn’t in our offices and it teaches them new skills” he said. “As a commercial lawyer, being plain, we are moving money around, this way they can make a real difference to people.”

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