Balancing the advice needs of Bristol – A major report on the need for social welfare legal advice in the City banner

Balancing the advice needs of Bristol – A major report on the need for social welfare legal advice in the City

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This report funded by The University of Bristol and written by Jane Emanuel of Bristol Law Centre, considers the need for social welfare legal advice in Bristol.

It looks at: the key needs of Bristol’s citizens; the needs of communities; the impact of legislative change in particular the withdrawal of legal aid in many areas of law; legislative change and the impact on Bristol and response by advice agencies; opportunities and developments as they relate to technological solutions and how Bristol’s’ advice agencies respond to the key strategies of the city.

It also details the contribution that advice agencies and legal pro-bono activities make to the city, the work they undertake and how this work supports individual citizens to ensure their well -being. It further details how advice agencies contribute to the local economy and support a range of volunteering options for people of working age and in retirement.

Securing advice on a range of different issues is key for many of Bristol’s residents and
particularly for those that are vulnerable economically or because of poor mental or physical health. There are many challenges that those providing advice face, crucially:

  • Their ability to continue to respond to the advice needs of all communities in the face of reducing and time-limited funding and increasing legal and regulatory complexity.
  • Their ability to deliver services appropriate to those citizens most in need who present with complex needs and complex problems whilst continuing to enable those who are more able to access services to resolve their problems.
  • Their ability to deliver services that are appropriate and in reach of local communities and maximise effectiveness through a range of different partnerships with other providers of services.
  • Their ability to in the face of reducing resources to expand services and harness relevant expertise to enable legal help and support to be available in different areas of law, which Bristol’s more vulnerable citizens need.
  • The provision of advice remains little changed over decades of providing advice, it is premised on the basis that people require free and confidential advice in a one to one environment and that their needs can be met either through one off advice or through casework. What has changed is the way people can access this, there is a heavier reliance on technology and less opportunity to undertake (costlier) face to face advice and home visits. Funding for public legal education and take-up campaigns has largely disappeared as has funding specifically to support people in hospitals waiting to be discharged and in prisons for
    those on remand or nearing release.
  • Nonetheless Bristol has an active and co-ordinated advice sector, it has demonstrated considerable resilience in ensuring services have continued to be delivered in a period of sustained cuts and austerity, it has developed nationally acclaimed projects and secured funding to develop different ways of working and ‘testbed’ new ideas to respond to need. However, it needs to continue to juggle with the complexity of meeting people’s needs whilst developing and realigning provision, to ensure it keeps pace with new developments and allied funding opportunities and continues to maximise the expertise and commitment of all
    those involved, be they trustees, paid staff or volunteers.
  • The sector contributes in a variety of ways to the city. In 2018/19, 10 of Bristol’s key advice agencies:
    Provided advice and /or casework services to nearly 20,000 people over 90% of whom were Bristol residents

    • Secured nearly £8 million pounds in back dated benefits
    • Put just over £23 million pounds of people’s debt into controlled management
    • Levered £2 million pounds of external funding
    • Supported 246 volunteers who cumulatively provided, £500,000 (gross) of in-kind support

Maintaining and developing this provision, will continue to be challenging. The sector needs to continue to build on relationships with external agencies and it needs to focus on how it can develop partnerships with providers of non-advice services to secure a wider reach into the most disadvantaged communities. It also needs to ensure that the services it provides and the way they are provided continue to be supported by those communities most in need of advice, in particular it needs to determine what happens to those who fall through the advice safety net and/or do not ever reach it. ….