LegalVoice 2016: conference reports

The LegalVoice 2016 conference took place last week, March 1 at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. Many thanks to Unbound, The Legal Eduction Foundation, Freshfielde Bruckhaus Deringer and DG Legal for their support.

The theme of the conference was ‘making it work’ and there were 16 workshops with 34 speakers over the course of one day.

You can also watch the workshop sessions below. The overviews of the sessions are written by Catherine Baski (CB), Fiona Bawdon (FB), and Jon Robins (JR).


Workshop 1A: Social media, what’s the point?

The question for lawyers is no longer whether social media is a useful business tool, but how to make the best use of it, according to Jeremy Hopkins, client relationship manager, at Obelisk Legal Support.

Hopkins, a former barristers’ clerk, said he had spent most of his career ‘in a conservative sector of the legal services market’ and was ‘not a digital evangelist’. Nevertheless, following his move into the ABS sector, he had seen firsthand the power of social media. He cited the example of Riverview Law, where he was formerly director of operations, which launched in 2012 and used social media to ‘make a huge impression’. ‘It was so successful when we started up that loads of business came in that we couldn’t service, so we had to outsource it.’

Miranda Grell, business development manager at Hackney Community Law Centre, said social media had an equally valuable role to play in the not for profit sector.

HCLC has used its social media presence – mainly on Facebook and Twitter – to give it ‘a vastly raised and more respected profile’, she said. It had also revamped its website which had previously been ‘awful’. ‘It didn’t have a purpose. It was difficult to navigate and people couldn’t use it to get any idea what we could help them with.’

The law centre now uses social media to connect with numerous different audiences: Hackney residents with legal problems; local volunteers; people interested in social justice issues; potential business partners; journalists and academic researchers, among others.

A local ‘atheist church’ had made a donation of £500 to HCLC after finding out about its work on social media. One of its grant funders had been delighted to be thanked on Twitter after the solicitor whose post it funds won a prestigious legal award. It also uses Twitter to publicise its successes – such as a recent halted eviction – and advice sessions that it runs in a local library.



Workshop 1B: EU funding for legal advice organizations

Top tips from Julie Bishop, director of the Law Centres Network:

  1. Find out what funding is available. European funding programmes run on a seven-year cycle, managed by the European Commission, on the basis of annual work programmes in which they specify their funding priorities for the following year. Following publication of their Annual Work Programme it will launch calls for proposals, or invitations, to apply for funding.

Your first port of call should be Access Europe to find out about funding programmes and when calls for bids are announced.

  1. Understand the EU’s strategic plan and ensure your project supports the implementation of its policy and legislation. Provide full details about your project, partners and costs and show how it works to achieve the EU’s policy objectives. Do not replicate a project that has already been funded, but see what has been funded in the past and seek to build on those projects.
  2. Allow plenty of time. Allow a month to prepare your application. There are so many forms that you and your partners need to complete.
  3. No funding for advice. You cannot get funding simply for providing advice, but you can link the provision of advice with other parts of your project.
  4. Pick you partners wisely. All programmes require you to work with partners, either in the UK or across Europe. There are agencies that can help you find appropriate partners, such as Access Europe. Being a partner in a project first will help you gain an understanding of what is involved.
  5. Matched funding. The EU does not generally finance projects up to 100%, so will have to find funding from other sources. This does not need to be money in the bank, but can be in the form of volunteer time.
  6. Fresh pair of eye to check bid. Once you have prepared your application, get someone to check it.
  7. DO NOT leave it until the last minute to submit your bid. Submit your application at least five days before the deadline. If the system crashes on the last day, because everyone across Europe is putting in their proposals, that is bad luck. We learnt this the hard way.
  8. Reporting. It is up to you to evidence and report what you have done. The procedure is incredibly detailed, they check everything and do not give you the last part of the money until your final report has been submitted and approved.



Workshop 1C: (i) Justice First Fellowship scheme; and (ii) Scoping a leadership development program for the social welfare legal advice sector

The workshop looked at two separate initiatives: one to ensure the future of social welfare law by attracting the brightest young lawyers into publicly-funded law; and the other to ensure that the sector had the best leadership.

The Legal Education Foundation’s (TLEF) Justice First Fellowship aims to support ‘the next generation of social welfare lawyers’. There are currently 18 fellows. ‘Hopefully, by this time next year we will have 30 fellows in place,’ TLEF’s chief exec Matthew Smerdon told delegates. ‘It will start to feel like a movement.’

Smerdon quoted TLEF governor Tim Dutton QC to explain the idea, who said: ‘We cannot ignore the risk that lawyers of high talent, a sense of social justice and moral commitment may not be able to train in the areas of social welfare law where help is so desperately needed and on such a wide scale.’

Smerdon said that the scheme was inspired by a trip to the US and in particular by the Equal Justice Works and the Skadden Foundation fellowships. ‘Both of those fellowship schemes have over the last 25 years supported social welfare and public lawyers at the start of their careers,’ he said.

Smerdon explained that there were three component parts to the JFF fellowship: a two-year fully funded training contract in a specialist social welfare agency; responsibility for a project that advances access to justice; and additional training and development to foster the ‘sense of a movement’.

Barbara Likulunga, a trainee solicitor at Avon and Bristol Law Centre, was two months into her fellowship, ‘I always wanted to do social welfare law,’ she said. ‘For the past three years I’ve worked in the third sector volunteering. You quickly get to the point where that is not viable, the fellowship is such a good opportunity to do something that you are passionate about and to increase your professional development.’

James Barrett, from Cass Business School’s centre for charity effectiveness, spoke about a new leadership programme aimed at the social welfare law sector and funded both by the Baring foundation and the John Paul Getty charitable trust. It is a 12 month programme for 50 to 60 senior leaders and chief executives across England and Wales.

‘In all the debates about cutting legal aid services, it has never been cut on the grounds of ineffectiveness,’ Barrett said. ‘That is crucial to the program. It needs to be appreciative and in-line with everyone’s passion and commitment.’ He went on to say colleagues at Cass ‘tried to think of any equivalent sector where there have been cutbacks on this scale. We couldn’t think of any that came close to what you are experiencing at the moment.’



2A: The use of law by the voluntary agencies

Kamena Dorling, head of policy and programs at Coram’s children’s legal centre, spoke about its migrant children’s project which has seven members of staff including five solicitors. ‘The project has been going for just over 10 years, whilst its grown in size, the purpose remains the same – to protect specifically the rights of young refugees and migrants in the UK,’ Dorling explained.

She described the role of the project as providing ‘a bridge between frontline practitioners and the complicated and changing world of law and policy’. Dorling stressed that the project, as well as being about bringing about ‘individual change’, was also about ‘changing practice, and changing how this group of children are supported – through training and the provision of legal information and guidance’. ‘Our audience is both voluntary agencies, and those working with local authorities, social workers and foster carers and frontline practitioners,’ she said. A third aspect – aside from bringing about individual change and change in practice – was contributing to ‘systemic change – how can we change the system as a whole to benefit the wider group’.

‘One of the key reasons why the migrant children’s project exists – and why we do any of the training and awareness-raising – is because there is a long-standing perception that immigration control trumps everything else. We are trying to constantly challenge that,’ she said.

Kalyani McCarthy, service manager at the Children’s Society, spoke about its refugee and migrant projects. In London the charity has nine practitioners working on five projects with refugee and asylum seeking young people and families. ‘The main focus for all the projects is one-to-one holistic casework and advocacy,’ she said. ‘Underpinning all our work is the difficulty of young people trying to access services and how that is affected by immigration status. We are working out what are their entitlements, trying to explain that to them in the most simple way and trying to access services that are being blocked.’



2B: LAPG certificate in practice management

Too many people managing legal aid firms are ‘accidental leaders’, who have ended up in the role not by design, and ‘have had no skills training or anyone show them how to do the job’, according to DG Legal management consultant Matthew Howgate.

Legal Aid Practitioners Group director Carol Storer said that for law firms, ‘management is never easy’, whether you are a non-lawyer trying to manage a group of lawyers or a ex-lawyer trying to manage them.

LAPG is set to launch its first certificate in practice management in April 2016, after extensive piloting of the course last year. The scheme is tailored to the needs and budgets of legal aid firms, with over 60 hours of training (a mix of face to face and online) for under £2,000.

A useful exercise for delegates is to consider is ‘how you would set up a legal aid practice from scratch’, said Vicky Ling, from Partnership Quality Systems. She suggested that we might now have reached the ‘minimum spend’ on legal aid. ‘It maybe that government can’t cut it any more. Given that, are there opportunities in the market? I think there probably are.’

One opportunity might be presented by the number of leading legal aid lawyers nearing retirement. ‘That is going to leave gaps in the market and there are going to be opportunities for new practices to fill those gaps,’ said Ling.



2C: Funding advice using legal expenses insurance

How to get funding from legal expenses insurance – advice from Elizabeth Davey of the Legal Advice Centre (University House):

  1. Find out whether client has LEI. Clients can have legal expenses insurance without realising it. It is provided on a stand-alone basis or commonly included in vehicle, home or travel insurance policies. It typically covers personal injury, consumer, property and employment claims.
  2. Professional indemnity insurance: The client must have in place the necessary minimum insurance cover.
  3. Applying for funding: The client contacts their insurance company, normally within 180 days of the claim arising.
  4. Insurer makes a decision: Legal expenses policies generally contain a clause allowing insurers to withhold or withdraw funding unless there is a ‘reasonable prospect of success’, which normally means a 51% chance of winning.
  5. Where insurer refuses to fund claim: You can appeal the decision. Getting a second opinion from a barrister may help. Failing that, you can complain to the Financial Services Ombudsman (FSO).
  6. Panel solicitors: Normally insurers have panel firms that they instruct. If the insurer will not fund the client’s chosen solicitor, the client can negotiate with the provider or complain to the FSO.
  7. Once instructed: Keep a detailed schedule of costs and log calls and emails. Use a good case management system (CMS). You can email to use CMS for free.
  8. At conclusion of case: Submit completed file to the insurer in the required format together with a bill of costs.



3A: The viability of law firms using charitable structures and crowd funding to provide legal services

Legal aid firms should consider turning themselves into charities or setting up charitable arms, as a way of generating additional income, Deighton Pierce Glynn partner Polly Glynn told the conference.

‘Legal aid is now unsustainable as a sole funding stream,’ she said. DPG has kept afloat in the face of successive legal aid cuts only by winning cases and being paid market rates by losing defendants, but this financial lifeline is now under threat and the firm is actively looking at the charitable option.

Glynn said becoming wholly or partly a charity could bring significant advantages, although there are considerable hurdles still to overcome.

Benefits include gaining access to additional sources of income, such as grants (most major funders can only make payments to charities); no longer needing to be regulated by the SRA (charities and law centres are exempt); no tax on profits and exemption from business rates.

Charities can also raise funds directly through crowdfunding, rather than having to do it in the name of the client. Julia Salasky, the former City solicitor who founded Crowdjustice, claims 90% of its cases are successfully funded, and it has raised in total around £250,000 so far. She described crowdfunding as ‘a virtual whip round’.

Cases funded by Crowdjustice include the recent successful Supreme Court intervention by the campaign group Joint Enterprise Not Guilty by Association, which led to a reinterpretation of the controversial law.

Glynn said her firm had taken cases which had been paid for by successful crowdfunding campaigns by clients, including the challenge to the absence of women on bank notes. However she added that crowdfunding has fairly limited application. ‘It can work well for cases which directly effect a large number of people. We have had less success in raising the money for important cases which have a less direct effect.’



3B: The role of advice services in health outcomes

Lindsay Poole, director of the Advice services Alliance Advice, and James Sandbach, of the Low Commission, talked about their joint work on the provision of advice services as part of the range of local health services in community and primary care. Their joint report published last year made the point that advice on welfare provided in primary health settings could reduce the 15% of GPs’ time that they presently spend on patients’ benefits issues and could lead to fewer repeat appointments.

‘We know people with poor health often have other problems. We have plenty of evidence,’ said Poole. ‘We also know that people with legal problems are likely to suffer from poor health, particularly in relation to mental health. There is a relationship between poverty and health.’ She cited the review by Sir Michael Marmot (Fair Society, Healthy Lives) who, in his introduction to the Low Commission/ ASA report, noted that ‘patients who are seen in clinical settings may well have problems in their everyday lives that may be causing or exacerbating their mental and physical health or may be getting in the way of their recovery’. ‘If we do not tackle these everyday “practical health” issues then we are fighting the clinical fight with one hand tied behind our back,’ he wrote.

James Sandbach flagged up a LAG poll of GPs in which over two-thirds of respondents (67%) reckoned that the number of patients who might have benefited from specialist advice on welfare benefits had increased in the last year. ‘The debate going on in the health sector is very similar to the debate going on in our sector,’ he said. ‘The language and terminology might be quite different and often we do not realise that we are talking about the same things.

In LAG’s GP survey almost half of the respondents (48%) strongly agreed that a patient not having access to legal or specialist advice on social welfare issues could have a negative impact on health.

‘GPs are concerned that they do not medicalise what is a social problem,’ Poole said; adding that there was a ‘strong rationale in referring to advice services’. ‘The option as to where to send people is quite difficult though,’ she added. ‘Access to advice services is patchy. Often the advice sector has struggled to target our services at those people who have the greatest need.’

Lindsay Poole concluded by saying: ‘We now have a good engagement with the public health sector and practitioners certainly understand the issues we are talking bout.’



3C: Getting money and making the most of it

Rachel Billett, a funding consultant who works with The Legal Education Foundation, Comic relief and others, offered delegates top tips on fundraising.

She stressed three points. ‘Make sure that your application to the funder clearly meets the criteria and addresses them directly,’ she said ‘Secondly, focus on the needs of your clients and the outcomes. What I have found in this sector is that you are brilliant at telling us what to do but – to risk a huge generalisation – you aren’t so good at articulating why you are doing this.’ Thirdly, she called on delegates to ‘tell the story and bring it alive. Give us evidence from your own experience.’

Billett also said that a good relationship with funders was increasingly important. ‘We are moving to a situation where funders are less remote than they have been,’ she said; advising firms and the advice sector to ‘listen to feedback – and take it in the spirit in which it is intended’.

She also advised them to be aware of funder trends. ‘At the moment there are trends around early action, preventative work,’ she said. ‘Funders are interested in holistic work which addresses all of the needs of the client.’

As for things to avoid, Billett flagged up ‘legalese’ and complicated references to legal judgments cases. ‘Do not make assumptions about what we know and understand about your sector,’ she advised. She also advised delegates ‘not to rush your bid’. ‘Think it through. Take this as an opportunity to sell your organisation. If you don’t it, who else is going?’ she said.

Jacqui Scott, a fundraising consultant, spoke about the value of individual fund raising. ‘Individual giving is a huge and important part of the charity sector in this country,’ Scott said. ‘Charities Aid Foundation estimates it is about £10 billion a year that comes into the charity sector through individual giving.’ That is about the same as the amount of money that comes into the legal services sector from grant-making trusts. ‘And so if you’re not doing anything on individual giving you might consider you’re missing out on half of your potential income,’ she said.

Scott went through the basic principles of individual fundraising – keep records; keep in touch; and keep trying: ‘It’s easy to talk policy language and jargon but if you’re going to ask for money you have to make them cry; you have to tug at the heartstrings,’ she said.

Natalia Rymaszewska, chief executive of the London Legal Support Trust, offered the following money-saving tips:

  1. Energy Bills: Registered charities get a reduced VAT rate on energy bills – they pay 5%, not 20% as well as not having to pay the Climate Change Levy. If you have been overpaying you can claim a rebate for up to three years. Also compare suppliers and make you are getting the best deal.
  2. Stationery-buying group: The LLST has set up a joint buying group, allowing any registered charity or organisation providing free legal advice to benefit from discounted stationery prices. Email if you want to join.
  3. Free charity bank accounts: Make sure that you have the best bank account and one, like the Co-operative Bank or CAF (Charities Aid Foundation), that charges no monthly fees.
  4. Online fundraising platforms: Select the platform that allows you to get the maximum from donations. While JustGiving is the most well-know, it is also the most expensive, costing £18 a month plus a 5% charge and card processing fees. Mydonate, run by BT, is free to sign up with and has the lowest card processing fees and no extra charges.
  5. Free to charities: Charities can get Office 365, Salesforce, Clio Case Management and other IT and telephone audit services free of charge.
  6. Group purchase schemes: Group-buying schemes exist for software licences, photocopying and franking machines.
  7. More information: For more details go to LegalVoice (here).

JR and CB


Workshop 4A: Working in partnership with clinical commissioning groups and others

Working in partnership with clinical commissioning groups is ‘not a magical formula’ to solve the advice sectors’ funding problems, but it has potentially huge benefits for local people, according to Paul Sweeting, coordinator of Brighton and Hove Advice Partnership.

BHAP is in a partnership which brings together service providers in health, business, local authorities and police, ‘to work together towards the same vision’.

He added: ‘It is not just about advice, but promoting fairness and social inclusion. It is about getting people together to make things happen.’

The strategic partnership has had success in making advice available in GP surgeries and won a £400,000 grant from British Gas to ensure warmer, healthier homes, in a project involving 15 organisations. Services provided under the scheme include in depth advice and casework, hardship payments, home assessments and advice on how people can use less energy.

Sweeting warned, however: ‘Don’t look at healthcare professionals and just think they will fund the service that you really care about. Don’t think this is magic formula for funding.’

Lynne Davies, CEO of Portsmouth Citizens Advice said the Portsmouth Advice Services Partnership had had similar successes. PASP was launched in 2013 and brings together 19 organisations, including the local university, city council advice agencies, charities, Portsmouth food bank and the legal aid firm Swain & Co.

Among its aims are encouraging volunteer development, sharing training, and working together to reduce demand caused by failures elsewhere in the system, such as poor decisions making or delays by the Department of Work and Pensions.

PALP has strong links with Portsmouth Law School, and law students can complete 100 hours of volunteering in lieu of writing a dissertation. ‘It is a very popular scheme,’ said Davies.



Workshop 4B: the need for qualified legal support in refugee family detention

Legal aid for family reunion (FR) case was withdrawn in 2013 because the government described the process as ‘straightforward’.

But research by the British Red Cross, which last year helped reunite 250 families, demonstrates that the process is anything but simple.

Vanessa Cowan, the family reunion project manager at the Red Cross, explained that the application process is lengthy and complex; most refugees (62%) lacked the necessary English skills; 74% were missing documentary evidence, such as birth or marriage certificates; and in 23% of cases, the reunion involved stepchildren or children who had been informally adopted, which caused extra legal and procedural difficulties.

Said Cowan, Refugee family reunion cases, are about ‘protecting lives’, so they should be considered part of the asylum process – and not immigration matters.

The Red Cross has called on the Ministry of Justice to reinstate public funding for legal advice for family reunion. It has called on the Home Office to simplify the application process and asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to recognise the diverse needs of refugee family members and work with embassies to make the process safer and more accessible.

Read the full report here.



Workshop 4C: Using volunteers and students

Helen Sheldon, specialist welfare benefits adviser at Islington Law Centre, told the workshop about their form-filling clinic run by volunteers. The law centre offers a session every week from their offices (other welfare advice work happens outside of the office in outreach settings) comprising four appointments. ‘We deal only with benefits claim forms. Sessions are always fully booked and there is a high attendance rate,’ Sheldon said.

‘Our volunteers have an incredibly diverse background. Very few have more than a minimal knowledge of benefits,’ she continued. Sheldon described the scheme as ‘frighteningly simple and unsophisticated – but it works’. ‘We have enough volunteers so that when a new volunteer arrives they shadow the first couple of appointments, usually an experienced volunteer. As and when we think they are ready to fly solo, we let them work independently,’ she said; adding that they encourage their volunteers ‘to do a certain amount – but very little – background reading’. Throughout the sessions Sheldon and her colleagues are on hand, and always present to start an appointment off and at its end.

‘The structure works with very little formal training. It does not take up very much of our time to help get volunteers through system,’ she said. ‘The astonishing thing is the success rate. Of our “known outcomes” about 75% are successful, and that has been consistent for three years. Our clients are pleased because by and large they get a good result and, if they don’t, they are pleased because we refer them straight to advice.’ Over the last year, 117 forms were filled (including 89 ‘known outcomes’) and there were ‘known gains’ of £261,538.

Richard Stacey, welfare benefits case worker from Avon and Bath Law Centre, spoke about its legal advocacy support project (LASP) model staffed by students from the University of the West of England and the University of Law. LASP’s success has won the project much coverage in the press over the last year. ‘You have a key caseworker at the centre, Andy King,’ Stacey explained. ‘Andy meets the client in the first interview, establishes that there are merits to the appeal. And then he becomes supervisor. A student continues the interview, writes the client-care letter, obtains medical evidence, writes the witness statement, the submission, attends the tribunal as representative and each stage has to be signed off by the supervisor.’

Following the success of that model, the scheme now features student supervising other students. ‘As a result of this over three years of the project, we have completed 256 appeals and raised over £1 million. We have a 95% success rate,’ Stacey said.

What were the problems? ‘Dealing with students – you have the problem of them suddenly not being around for a month or so,’ he said. As well as the scheme creating additional admin, he said: ‘The space in your building is only finite. We have 18 students come into our building on various days of the week according to their timetable. These are not insuperable problems. The scheme does work.’


About Jon Robins

Jon is a journalist and has written about the law and justice for the national papers and specialist press for more than 15 years. Jon is a visiting journalism lecturer at Winchester University, a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln and patron of Hackney Community Law Centre. He has won the Bar Council’s legal reporter of the year award twice (2015 and 2005). Jon is editor and co-founder of LegalVoice

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