Delivering Legal Advice over the Phone: What Do We Know? (2012-01-05)
Delivering Legal Advice over the Phone: What Do We Know?
Marisol Smith, Legal Services Research Centre, London
This article summarises findings from ‘Just a phone call away: Is telephone advice enough’ by Nigel Balmer, Marisol Smith, Catrina Denvir and Ash Patel which is in press with the Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law 34(1).
Over the last two decades the public sector in the UK has embraced new modes of service delivery, with a shift away from traditional face-to-face provision towards internet and telephone based advice and information. In the legal advice sector, while telephone advice has been a fundamental part of service delivery in a number of subject areas for some time, its prominence is set to increase across the board, as a result of reforms proposed by the Ministry of Justice in 2010. The legislation intended to give these reforms effect, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill currently going through Parliament, proposes a single telephone gateway for civil legal aid services. Although the gateway will be mandatory for only four categories of law in the first instance, there is an expectation that it will become the route into legal aid for other categories in the near future, with only limited exceptions.
As highlighted by respondents to the recent consultation on legal aid reforms (of which there were more than 5,000 in total), there is a notable absence of research which compares alternative delivery modes and the implications of an increased reliance on telephone based services. In an attempt to address this lacuna our research used administrative data from the Legal Services Commission (LSC) on legal aid services to examine the similarities and differences between telephone and face-to-face provision for legal advice on housing problems. We looked at the client groups and problem types which tended towards the two channels, the relationship between mode of advice and the outcome of cases for clients, as well as the relationship between mode of advice and advice time.
Our analysis highlighted some key findings of relevance to the development of telephone advice. In particular the research indicated that use of the Community Legal Service (CLA) telephone advice line was not uniform across people or problems. Service users under the age of 18 and people living with an illness or disability were more likely to tend toward face-to-face advice. We also found a number of differences amongst the types of problems being addressed by telephone based services. For example, clients with homelessness and housing benefit problems tended toward face-to-face provision whereas landlord and tenant issues were more likely to tend towards the telephone. These findings suggest that problem and client groups associated with disadvantage and vulnerability are more often inclined towards advice provided in a face-to-face setting.
Our research also found pronounced differences in the outcome of cases by channel of advice delivery, with a far greater tendency for face-to-face advice to result in what appeared to be more tangible outcomes. For example, where clients were experiencing homelessness or threat of homelessness, face-to-face advice led to an outcome of ‘housed/rehoused/retains home’ for 37 percent of clients. The comparable figure for telephone advice was 9 percent, where the majority of cases concluded with the client being ‘better able to plan or manage affairs’.
Finally, our research findings presented a challenge to the presumption that telephone advice is more efficient than face-to-face alternatives. Simple comparisons suggest that telephone advice is shorter than face-to-face advice, an average of 133 minutes compared to 192 minutes, respectively. However, once account is taken of other variables, such as clients’ demographic characteristics, problem types, and most importantly the stage reached in a case (since telephone cases were far less likely to progress to more advanced stages), telephone advice takes on average 14 minutes longer than face-to-face advice.
Our findings raise a number of important considerations for the expansion of telephone based services, especially where such expansion is considered a replacement for existing modes of access to advice. Our research suggests that firstly there is a need to understand what drives client preferences towards certain modes; in particular, whether the telephone presents access barriers for the client groups we identify as less frequent users, or whether these groups simply have lower levels of awareness about existing telephone services. Secondly, more needs to be known about how differences in case outcomes arise and whether differences can be attributed to the suggestion that clients with ‘simple’ or ‘less serious’ problems are more inclined to access advice via the telephone. Finally, there is a need to better understand the extent to which savings predicted to derive from a shift to telephone advice are premised on accurate calculations of advice time.
Going forward, the analytical approach we adopted could usefully be applied to other administrative data, including services addressing a broader range of clients than the legal aid eligible. Whilst this research fills an important gap in the literature, there is still much to learn.