Is free advice free?
Free advice will be advertised all over the web especially for Welfare Benefits where legal aid has been withdrawn. It is best to think of Free Advice, as advice paid for by someone else. In the good old days that would have been the government. Pop along to your local solicitor, sign a form, and hey presto you have Free Advice; not really the advice was paid for under the legal aid scheme. OK go down the Law Centre, make an appointment and there you have it — Free Advice. No not really your advice will have been paid for by the local council, a charity or the Legal Aid scheme. Alright then lets try the Citizens Advice Bureau; once again the advice will have been paid for from the Legal Aid Scheme or from the CABx’s own funds. The short answer to the question is no, someone has to pay. The advice was free to the person receiving it but the point is someone had to pay for it. So what has changed?
What has changed is that there is now very little advice that is free to the recipient. This is because the government has withdrawn funding. You might find a Law Centre still soldiering on with volunteers or perhaps for some cases the Free Representation Unit (FRU) might help but in the vast majority of cases the person who wishes to appeal refusal of their Employment Support Allowance or their Disability Living Allowance or to seek advice and representation on a Benefits Investigation will have to pay for their advice.
The cuts to Legal Aid are really beginning to bite, especially in housing cases. We appear regularly in the County Court to help deal with possession lists. More and more tenants now arrive at court to defend possession claims or to try to set aside Warrants of Eviction. They come unrepresented because they will not pay for advice and because the usual sources of free advice such as Shelter are overwhelmed by demand and according to one report cannot cope with the volume.
There is an argument that legal advice should be seen as a priority expense for people threatened with eviction, or who have been refused benefits. The idea that some non-essential expenses such as cable TV, expensive phone bundles, or even cars should be sacrificed to pay the rent, let alone solicitors fees, is not popular. Once we were going through a client’s expenses to see where savings could be made to fund payment of rent arrears and the current rent. We identified a saving if they gave up broadband. The suggestion was met with incredulity even though not paying would mean losing their home. The value of social contact through the internet was higher than a roof over their head. It will take time but providing a high quality service is provided in the end clients, who would once have been legally aided, will see the sense in prioritising paying for essential advice from their solicitors.
Many advertisers will say they give “free” advice but in almost all cases this will be limited to the first telephone call or the very limited circumstances where legal aid is available pre-charge. Our experience is that more and more clients are having to accept that their legal advice will need to be paid for and that they do need to pay for it. A benefits Investigation can not only lead to demands for return of money from the DWP but also to criminal charges and prosecution. Refusal of DLA or ESA can cost claimants thousands of pounds a year. So it is vital when seeking advice to follow these golden rules:
- Only use professionally qualified advisors
- Only use advisors who have completely transparent pricing structures
- Only use advisors who offer value for money
- Never take only a part of the service — the first part may look cheap but the fees will quickly increase
- Only use advisors who can demonstrate that they are experts in their field.
- If you want to use solicitors — check that they are what they say they are here
We are committed to continuing to provide advice to claimants accused of Benefit Fraud or wrongly denied ESA, DLA or any other entitlement. That is why we offer our access to justice rates where we get paid the same as we would have done under Legal Aid and sometimes less. You can find out more here.