Advising in Austerity: The value of good advice

In 2015/2016 The Citizens Advice Network delivered £361 million in savings to government and public services, and £2 billion in economic value to society. The majority of their work was carried out by 23,000 volunteers who it would have cost £114 million to employ.

About the research

Local advice offices, providing free-to-access advice to all, have been hit by the loss of legal aid contracts and up to 80% cuts in local authority funding. At the same time, the need for assistance with problems in areas such as debt, housing and welfare benefits is rising dramatically. High demand has led many agencies to increase capacity to triage clients according to need, and extend telephone and digital advice.

Whilst these changes have allowed many agencies to increase the number of clients they reach, there has been a reduction in face-to-face advice and specialist support. In particular, services cannot meet the high and growing demand for help with complex welfare benefit problems.

As part of a collaborative project with Citizens Advice Bristol, researchers carried out interviews with directors of Citizens Advice in seven core cities in England (Liverpool, Bristol, Birmingham, Sheffield, Manchester, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Leeds).

Interviews highlighted huge disparities around the country in local authority funding for advice, alongside a trend of declining capacity for specialist advice and assistance. Lack of resources for specialist casework is of particular concern. Expert specialisation in key areas of demand is being hollowed out through the combined loss of legal aid, local authority and pro bono provision.

Policy implications

  • A national advice strategy is needed for England and Wales, to guarantee a minimum level of free legal advice provision and access across the country.
  • New sources of stable funding are required to fill the gap left by the loss of legal aid and local authority funding cuts.
  • The government review of LASPO should also consider the effects of local authority spending cuts on demand for and access to advice and legal support. This should include the effect of the cuts on areas now out of scope for legal aid.
  • Additional funds should be made available as a priority to enable advice services to help people affected by the roll out of Universal Credit.
  • The future of funding and careers in specialist social welfare legal advice should be jointly considered by key stakeholders: advice sector networks, university law clinics, the Law Society, the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Ministry of Justice.
  • Projects engaging law students in pro bono advice provision should be extended. University Schools of Law should consider funding partnership projects with advice services to boost employability, student satisfaction levels and support access to justice in local communities.

Key findings

  • Advice services in core cities have undergone radical restructuring in the wake of extensive cuts. Many have managed to sustain or increase numbers of clients dealt with through telephone, online and assisted information work, but in-depth face to face advice appointments - vital for sorting clients’ complex problems - have been reduced.
  • Demand for advice and assistance exceeds service capacities in key areas, particularly welfare benefits. Help with benefit problems accounts for 30-55% of enquiries at local Citizens Advice, and this demand is crowding out clients with other issues. The roll-out of Universal Credit is expected to significantly increase the need for advice and support.
  • Provision for specialist client support is significantly reduced. Loss of funding for specialist legal advice on housing, employment and welfare benefits following reductions in legal aid have been compounded by cuts and restrictions in local authority funding.
  • Legal specialists underpin the volunteer effort through providing training, supervision and expert support on client cases, as well as directly advising clients on difficult cases.
  • The future of specialist legal advice in key areas is uncertain. Careers in social welfare law may be undermined by the declining number of paid specialist roles, as law firms reduce specialisation in areas out of scope for legal aid.
  • Law student placements and partnerships with university law schools can help meet demand for advice whilst enhancing student skills and employability. However, such projects require advice services to be able to provide appropriate supervisory support.

Further information

Stories of three Citizens Advice clients, can be heard on the Advising in Austerity website

The ‘Advising in Austerity’ project arose out of a four-year research programme – New Sites of legal Consciousness: a Case Study of UK Advice Agencies – which was funded by the European Research Council.

Advising in Austerity: Reflections on Challenging Times for Advice Agencies edited by Samuel Kirwan, is available from Policy Press – free copy available for voluntary sector organisations from the researchers 

Anna's journey - an example of a Citizen's Advice intervention


View or download the full infographic of Anna's Story - Advising in Austerity infographic (PDF, 904kB)

Designed by Peloton Design

Contact the researchers

Professor Morag McDermont, Principal Investigator

Ben Crawford, Knowledge Exchange Fellow

Sue Evans, Director, Citizens Advice Bristol

In 2015/2016 The Citizens Advice Network delivered £361 million in savings to government and public services, and £2 billion in economic value to society. The majority of their work was carried out by 23,000 volunteers who it would have cost £114 million to employ.

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European Union logo

The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework (FP/2007-2013), ERC Grant Agreement N°284152- NewSites’.

Professor Morag McDermont, University of Bristol
Ben Crawford, Knowledge Exchange Fellow, University of Bristol
Sue Evans, Director, Bristol Citizens Advice

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