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A trouble shared: legal problems clusters in solicitors' and advice agencies

Moorhead, Richard Lewis and Robinson, Margaret 2006. A trouble shared: legal problems clusters in solicitors' and advice agencies. London, UK: Department for Constitutional Affairs.

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The study examines whether and how clients of 12 solicitor firms and advice agencies present with multiple problems (clusters) and how these problems are dealt with. A mixture of solicitors, Citizens Advice Bureaux (CABx), law centres/specialist advice agencies and local authority providers were considered. We decided to focus on three main areas of social welfare law where clusters were particularly likely to occur: housing, benefits and debt. The organisations were located in London and a range of locations across South Wales and South West England. The research utilised a multi-method approach including: structured observation of 178 interviews between advisers and clients; structured interviews with advisers on 487 additional cases; and 35 semi-structured interviews with advisers about clients with multiple problems and surrounding service-delivery issues. We interviewed 58 clients about their experiences shortly after the interview, a further 36 of these clients were re-interviewed about their cases three or four months after the interview to get a stronger sense of how their cases had developed. Two workshops were held with advisers and stakeholders to discuss interim research findings. The main findings of the research are as follows: - Within the agencies we observed and in casework carried out by those agencies, clusters of problems crossing specialist boundaries presented for about 40-50% of clients. - The most common clusters we saw were around housing, benefits and debt and relationship breakdown. As important as the clusters themselves, however, was the tendency for a broad range of different problems to occur for clients in unpredictable ways. Problems that involved relationship breakdown/children, home ownership, mental health, domestic violence, employment and homelessness problems gave rise to the most complex, and arguably the most serious, problems. - Analysis of the observation and client interview data suggests that most problems within clusters interrelate and would benefit from a degree of coordinated management. Certain clients suffer from more problems because their problems are linked but also because these clients are amongst the most vulnerable in society. These clients' legal and social needs are complex and intersectional: their social and legal problems interrelate and amplify. Here the need for co-ordinated management of solutions to justiciable, and other, problems is strong. - There is evidence that justiciable problems cause, or are accompanied by, considerable stress, anxiety, and physical and mental health problems leaving clients with little energy for solving their problems. - As well as any outcome benefits from the specific problem being solved, advice, help and representation typically leave the client feeling more informed and calmer with reported reductions in stress levels and associated health problems. - The report identified a number of triggers for legal need, with the most common cause of advice seeking being the action or inaction of the local authority. Of the clients we observed, 37% had problems with local authorities. - Clusters usually presented explicitly, as part of the main issue the client raised initially with their adviser. However, about 12% of problems were raised implicitly, either through pro-active questioning by the adviser or being picked up through general dialogue with the client about the 'main' problem. Adviser interviewing skills played a part in this: those assessed as better interviewers on certain criteria exposed more complex problems. - A particularly important area is the extent to which advisers failed to expose the true extent of clients' problems during interview. Of the clients we followed up in interview, 29 out of 58 had some additional problems that had not been dealt with in the interviews. These were generally significant problems and about half were linked to their presenting problem(s) in some way (and so might more obviously give rise to a criticism of the adviser for failing to identify them). Analysis of our data suggests the structure and organisation of advisers may make a difference to whether and how a client presents multiple problems. - Advisers, when faced with problems outside their expertise, were often not dealing with them 'seamlessly', particularly when a specialist's own organisation lacked specialist skills in the problem presented by the client. - Practitioners' understandings of holistic provision appeared to be confined to notions such as putting the client's problems in context and trying, with mixed success, to ensure that clients can be signposted to appropriate providers when the initial adviser cannot deal with a particular problem. Broader notions of holistic practice, such as tackling social as well as legal problems, were not accorded much attention by the practitioners to whom we spoke. - Barriers to holistic provision include funding arrangements, organisational capacities and skills, information deficits and other barriers to joint working. - Several advisers articulated that they felt that empowering clients was an important element of effective advice giving. The research highlights that whilst sometimes this worked well, and gave clients the confidence and information necessary to take more control of their own lives, often it did not. Clients were confused by the instructions they were given and left problems to fester or escalate as a result. Clients coping with years of social exclusion or dramatic worsening in their health or lifestyle and poor levels of educational attainment and self-esteem are often ill-equipped to deal with complex bureaucracies or hostile opponents. Meeting the multiple needs of vulnerable people is a challenging agenda for the public sector. Many public services are seeking to address service users' multiple needs, improve user experience, protect vulnerable people and provide service efficiency through the reconfiguration of services to make services seamless from the point of view of the user. Different models of seamless and holistic services are being developed within the public sector. Responses to the findings of this research may be able to draw on the emerging models and lessons available.

Item Type: Monograph (Other)
Date Type: Publication
Status: Published
Schools: Law
Subjects: K Law > KD England and Wales
Uncontrolled Keywords: Solicitors ; Advice agencies; Multiple problems ; Clusters; Social welfare law ; Housing ; Benefits ; Debt ; London ; South Wales ; South West England.
Additional Information: Co-authors Matrix Consultancy. Department for Constitutional Affairs - DCA Research Series 8/06.
Publisher: Department for Constitutional Affairs
Last Modified: 10 Oct 2017 12:58

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