As the Citizen’s Advice Bureau undergoes changes, what options are there for hard-up consumers?
The Citizen's Advice Bureau (CAB) has always been a bastion of free legal advice, support and help. It's an integral part of our communities, and although it often goes unnoticed until people really need its help, CAB is an essential component of modern society.
It's troubling, then, to hear that this stalwart of fair and unbiased advice is under threat like never before. The CAB is a complex organism made up of 316 independent charities across the UK. The purpose of CAB is to make confidential advice available, for free, to those who most need it. From financial problems to consumer issues and legal problems, Citizen's Advice Bureau has been delivering expert help to society's poorest members since 1939.
The trouble is, grants and funding that's designed to help keep this service open is under threat, which means there's a good chance that the CAB could disappear from many of the UK's towns and cities. And that's a big problem for low-income people who may need legal advice, but simply cannot afford to pay the usual solicitors' charges.
A victim of Austerity?
This isn't a new problem. The issue was first highlighted by Citizen's Advice Bureau themselves in 2011, right in the middle of the financial crisis. A 10% funding cut was enough to reduce the number of people they were able to help by 7%. Throughout the Age of Austerity', things have gone from bad to worse, and quietly we've seen a decline in the availability of free legal advice that's available to everyone. Solicitors haven't been able to help, as funding for Legal Aid has also been slashed to the bone. In short, getting justice costs money, and for many who haven't got the cash to spare, that could mean they don't get the representation or the justice that they deserve.
One of the biggest problems is that a percentage of funding for CAB offices comes from local authorities who, in turn, have been hit by tighter and tighter budgetary constraints over the past eight years. Now that the brakes have been taken off the economy and we're emerging, blinking and confused, into the light of a future where the word austerity' is no longer heard, it would be logical to assume that CAB could breathe a sigh of relief. Sadly, though, that isn't the case.
Councils and local authorities are still feeling the effects of nearly a decade of belt-tightening, and there are a thousand other priorities for funding in front of CAB. That means Citizens Advice Bureaux up and down the country are at risk of closure.
What are the alternatives?
So are there any alternatives for the poor and desperate who need legal advice but don't have access to Citizen's Advice Bureau? Well, don't write them off entirely just yet. While CAB offices in the real world' are under threat, online CAB still offers a comprehensive (and totally free) service of legal, consumer, and financial advice.
Some solicitors in the UK carry out what is known as pro bono' or free work, but it is a limited service which only a very few practices offer. However, there are solicitors across the UK who offer payment plans to help those who are short of cash get access to reliable, professional legal advice.
The National Debt Advice Service can help with financial advice for those struggling or facing bankruptcy with practical, simple advice and alternatives. If you're struggling financially then talking to your bank's financial advisory service can help, too. Again, it's free, and they'll be able to give you tailored advice to suit your exact needs.
There are also online legal advice services that offer some free information, such as Right Legal Advice. These services provide you with some free advice with no need to register or pay a penny. It may not provide you with all the information you need, but it's a good starting point to help guide you in the right direction.
If you live in a town or city with a university that has a law department, then there may be a law Clinic' on offer where trainee solicitors and law students, under supervision, offer free advice to the public. These are often linked to local law firms and can be a good way of getting advice without having to pay an hourly rate.
While CAB may be suffering the effects of 10 years of austerity, they're still there, providing a superb service - for free. The legal profession would be all the poorer for the loss of CAB, so let's hope that as councils and authorities start to reallocate funds in the first non-austerity' year for a decade, that some of that funding goes towards one of this country's most essential front-line legal services.