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New Sites of Legal Consciousness: a case study of UK advice agencies

Final Report Summary - NEWSITES (New Sites of Legal Consciousness: a case study of UK advice agencies)

Advice organisations, rather than professional lawyers, are becoming key actors in legal arenas, particularly for citizens whose relationship to rights is most precarious. Through casework they can open doors to enable citizens to pursue their own rights and responsibilities, translating complex legal structures so that citizens can work within them. This casework then forms the basis for their intervention in social policy, re-presenting personal grievances of multiple clients as matters of public concern.

This research programme aimed to (i) explore ways in which Citizens Advice, one of the leading advice organisations in the UK, helps develop understandings of law and legality in everyday life; and (ii) understand the role of advice organisations as translators of everyday problems into the world of social policy making and change. These were addressed in three research projects.

‘Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB) and employment disputes’ aimed to understand how workers with employment disputes are supported by advisers. Fieldwork was carried out in 7 advice bureaux in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland. We followed the journeys of 158 people who approached the CAB for support with an employment problem as they tried to resolve their dispute, through interviews and observations of advice interviews and hearings in the Employment Tribunal.

‘Homelessness, Advice Provision and Technology’ explored how homeless people use technology to access advice and assistance, and how use of technology is affected by the ways in which ICT is provided by different homelessness support organisations. Empirical investigation took place at 3 homelessness organisations (a drop-in day centre; a Nightstop scheme; and a drop-in centre offering IT training) through interviews with 13 staff/key stakeholders and 16 homeless people, and observation at each organisation.

‘CAB Workers and Volunteers, Ideas of Legality and Citizenship’ examined how ideas of legality and citizenship shaped daily practices of advice-giving, training of volunteer advisers, and social policy and campaigning. The researcher trained as an adviser. Data was collected through participant observation and trainees' diaries, 42 interviews and 5 focus groups with advisers, managers, trainers and trainees at CAB in England and Scotland.

The research findings have been presented at multiple academic and non-academic conferences and workshops, through media interviews and policy briefings, and through lectures and training for law students and Employment judges.

Key findings
o The Citizens Advice bureau is a critical point at which everyday problems can be understood as a matter for legal action
o Understandings and practices of citizenship witnessed in Citizens Advice encompass principles of an independent, free advice service, available to everyone. These practices are important for reinvigorating a political discussion otherwise focused upon restriction and exclusion.
o The emotional labour of advice work - facilitating understanding, creating clarity and creating ownership - is key to understanding what effective advice.
o Access to justice for workers with employment disputes is increasingly problematic
- in the Employment Tribunal system the right to a fair hearing is constantly eroded by complex legal systems and the power imbalances between workers and employers
- fees to take a claim to the Employment Tribunal deter many applicants.
o Well-targeted legal advice would save resources in the Employment Tribunal service at the same time as helping claimants understand the legal technicalities of how to make a claim.
o The advice sector is threatened by ‘austerity’ policies:
- Whilst the voluntary effort is of central importance, local government funding cuts threaten to destabilise this vital resource at a time when ‘Austerity’ policies are intensifying social need.
- Important advice activities are increasingly not possible – in particular representation at tribunals – due to lack of resources
o Digital space is becoming a legal arena; however, the “one-size-fits all” approach of the UK Government’s disadvantages some of society’s most vulnerable individuals and should be replaced by an approach which recognises the diverse situations and experiences of different groups of people.