Access to advice: Some Facts
Extensive research over the last 12 years 1 has established that
- Over a third of the population experience a civil legal problem that they find hard to resolve in any three year period
- Many people seek advice and find it, but not necessarily from the most appropriate source
- Large numbers of people try to get advice but fail to do so
- Large numbers of people who do seek advice are deterred by lack of knowledge of the advice services available or experience difficulties in accessing them
- Large numbers of people do not try to get advice, and either try to resolve the problem on their own, or do nothing (and “lump” it)
See in particular:
- H. Genn “Paths to Justice: what people do and think about going to law” (1999);
- P. Pleasence and others “Causes of Action: Civil Law and Social Justice” (2004);
- P. Pleasence and others “Causes of Action: Civil Law and Social Justice” Second edition (2006);
- P. Pleasence and others “Civil Justice in England & Wales” – reports of the 2006 and 2007 English & Welsh Civil and Social Justice Survey.
The environment in which advice services operate may itself impede access. The recession has increased demand for advice in social welfare law at a time of diminishing supply, while new legislation and inefficient public administration may also increase the number of people coming through advice centres’ doors. Commissioning models do not always serve clients’ interests – especially where emphasis on quantitative targets does not take account of access support needs such as language or literacy.
Developing Access to Advice was one of the eight workstreams of the “Working Together for Advice” programme. Its aims were to:
- Improve clients’ initial contact with advice services
- Improve access for disadvantaged or “hard to serve” clients
- Improve referrals between advice services
We adopted as our starting point the perspectives of a client in finding and using an advice service and of an advice service in aiming to manage demand for advice. We asked: “What are the obstacles people experience in seeking advice and what action can advice services take to overcome them?” Following a review of existing research materials and consultations with advice providers, we addressed the two principal elements of access: the access route and the intake system.
The Access Route
In order to obtain advice, the first step is to recognise that the problem has a legal solution. Public legal education to raise awareness of legal rights and remedies complements the work of advice services and referral networks, but is seldom resourced. When clients present advice requests indirectly – for example via a service which does not provide legal advice – it is essential that that agency is able to identify the need for advice; is part of, or in contact with, a local advice network; receives training and support for its “problem noticing” role.
The Intake System
Once the client has contacted the advice agency, the aim is to identify the legal issue; whether the agency can assist; what level of help is needed; any urgent matters; whether the client can self-help. Ideally, this assessment is made at the client’s first contact, either by means of triage-type interview, conducted by a trained triage assessor, or through a diagnostic interview conducted by a legal adviser. The work can then be allocated to the most appropriate person within the advice service, in accordance with the nature and complexity of the issue.
The Access Pilots
Several agencies (three 2 CABx; two Law Centres; and five AdviceUK agencies) participated in the pilot phase of the project, reflecting the diversity of the not-for-profit advice sector in their profile and remit. Some provided advice only; others delivered a range of services.
Three access models were implemented by the pilot agencies:
Reception is often a “Cinderella” service – yet crucial to the client’s success in obtaining advice. In addition to the skills essential for dealing with large numbers of often anxious callers, the receptionist requires a detailed knowledge of what the advice agency does (and doesn’t) do and of what other advice is available locally. We devised training in reception skills and in establishing a “triage” system.
Five agencies wanted to improve the “access route” to their services for designated client groups: for example: young people; Polish and Roma communities in East London. Partnerships were created between the pilot agency and a partner organisation serving the targeted community. Methods to enhance access included the provision of outreach services at the premises of the partner organisation; enhanced referral arrangements; training in “problem noticing” for staff within the partner agency.
We worked with four advice agencies to improve their intake systems and specifically the mechanism for initial assessment and allocation of work. Participating organizations conducted an internal “audit” to identify their assets – principally the skills, knowledge and expertise of paid and volunteer staff – and then to match these against the profile of the work requested by clients. Where the client’s first contact is with an adviser (e.g. at a drop-in session), some agencies adopted brief diagnostic interviews following which an appointment for more detailed advice and/or casework was offered.
- The reception service is often under-valued. Effective reception services need resources, training and integration within the service as a whole.
- Space and time constraints may limit capacity for triage where this is undertaken by reception staff.
- The access route for “hard to serve” clients is improved through links – formal and informal – between advice agencies and services used by the target group.
- Initial diagnostic interviews enable advice services to prioritise work according to urgency and importance and can help advisers manage their time more effectively.
- An internal system of delegation can enable advice agencies to make better use of volunteers and less experienced staff.
- The access route works best within multi-disciplinary organisations – particularly where an internal referral system is in place.
Some of the work carried out under this workstream overlapped with the work of another Working Together for Advice workstream, ‘Enhancing Frontline Advice’. In particular, the work on referrals was relevant to both workstreams.
The resources produced and collated under this workstream can be found in the Partnerships section of this website.
Work was carried out on referral networks as part of two Working Together for Advice workstreams. This included a discussion document on signposting, referral and referral networks and the collation of a range of other resources on referrals, including templates and examples of referral forms.
The Advice Services Alliance published a report in 2008: Getting past reception: Access and intake systems in Not for Profit legal services providers. The report looked at how a range of agencies provided access to their services; what factors contributed to their choice of access system; what the advantages and disadvantages were of the range of intake systems; and what further issues should be considered by providers and others.