Law for Life and Resolution were out together this morning for the breakfast launch in South London of a joint pilot project. Law for Life is the public legal education organisation that runs the AdviceNow website. Resolution is the leading organisation of family lawyers dedicated to a non-confrontational approach. The model of the pilot being tested is fairly simple. Resolution lawyers provide a menu of unbundled but pre-determined services at a fixed price: Law for Life integrates their offers into its pre-existing guides – beginning with three of the most popular relevant to divorce. The implications raise, however, interesting issues.
First, the project should be a reminder to Government of the gaping hole in family law provision for low income couples created by the legal aid cuts and its own inability to meet the gap. As reported earlier, the Department of Work and Pensions now appears to have withdrawn its Sorting out Separation web provision which was intended as some sort of band aid assistance in family breakdown cases. This is all a bit mysterious and unclear. Go to sortingoutseparation.org.uk and you can briefly see the old site before it is guillotined by the provision of basic information and referral to the Citizens Advice or AdviceNow website. There has been no official announcement from the Department of Work and Pensions.
Let us make the hopeful deduction that the Government is not entirely clear in its position and still too embarrassed publicly to wash its hands of responsibility for what is a major cause of a spike in self-represented litigants and a lot of unhappiness for which the Government has historically felt some responsibility. The FLOWS domestic abuse project (Finding Legal Options for Women Survivors) and this one are both illustrations of how assistance can be provided other than through the reinstatement of legal aid in its classical form. Government should find that attractive – it has the chance of providing something better targeted and cheaper overall. What is not to like?
There are other points manifest in both projects. FLOWS and this one are partnerships between family lawyers and not for profit providers. And both provide further examples of how technology can be integrated with individual legal services so that it extends individualised provision rather than replaces it. The intention in this project is to meet the three key barriers seen as facing people seeking legal advice: unpredictability as to costs, affordability, and a lack of confidence in providers – who will be certified via their Resolution membership.
The project’s start up costs of around £70,000 ($90,000) were funded by the Legal Education Foundation (also, full disclosure, funders of this website). The intention is that the cost will be sustainable for Resolution members by way of the project’s ability to reach what Richard Susskind calls ‘the latest legal market’, those with some money but not enough to meet legal costs at traditional levels. As for Law for Life, it currently charges for some of its guides (though half are given away for free to those on low incomes) and the hope is that this programme will be a further incentive to subscribe (costs per charged title are around £16 or $21). In addition, if successful, it may be possible to charge fees to Resolution members wishing to join the panel. Government subsidy would, of course, be a further way of meeting the costs without individual charge to users.
There is a further point from this collaboration. The dominant information provider in England and Wales is citizensadvice.org.uk which has an excellent comprehensive website. That has forced Law for Life to be more innovative in its information provision and to forge alliances like this as pilots for new ways of delivery. That has got to be a good thing. Every Microsoft needs its Apple.