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This chapter presents an edited interview with Gail Bowen-Huggett, Advice Development Coordinator for ACFA: The Advice Network (formerly Advice Services for Avon). Gail had a background in the commercial sector before becoming in 2004 a manager at Bristol Debt Advice Centre (now Talking Money). Following this she became involved with ACFA, managing the network as it led a series of projects between 2013 and 2016 funded by the Advice Services Transition Fund (ASTF).

The interview provides an overview of a period in which the advice sector has been subject to significant changes and faced multiple challenges. Gail observes the effect of the loss of Legal Services Commission contracts and the role the ASTF played in mitigating this loss, questioning the capacity of the fund to create the changes it envisaged. From her experience of working with multiple agencies, she reflects upon the challenges faced by organisations with diverse funding arrangements, organisational structures and community needs. She argues in this respect for the importance of respecting the difference between paid staff and volunteers, thus highlighting a theme explored in John Clarke’s chapter (Ten), namely the unique nature of the reliance upon volunteer advisers within the Citizens Advice service. Despite these differences, Gail emphasises a theme discussed in Part Three of this book, namely the central importance of face-to-face advice, and the dangerous implications of an assumption that it can be abandoned.

SK: In the context of the cuts we have seen to the funding of advice agencies, I’ll start by asking what the key challenges are in managing funding contracts.

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Second unsupervised inteMy diary of participating in the Citizens Advice training programme is littered with these experiences. Notes on Debt Relief Order procedure are followed by my own worries about forgotten credit cards or the Council Tax Bill – debt in the abstract intertwining with debt as personal anxiety. We are used to thinking of debt as a question of morality (I am frequently reminded by friends that both Swedish and German hold the same word for ‘debt’ as for ‘guilt’), or of time: debt as the purchasing of today’s consumption with tomorrow’s labour. It is unusual to think of debt as a legal question. Yet it is through debt that many people will become enmeshed within the reaches of law, whether being forced to engage with the power of a contract or to question the nature of ownership. What defines different debts, as opposed to debt generally, are the legal framings that shape, among other things, how, when and by whom they can be enforced and collected.

I will explore here what debt advice tells us about how ‘law’ and ‘life’ are intertwined in the practice of advice. This intertwining, I argue, has important implications for the ongoing role of advice in the context of an assumption, presented in a Ministry of Justice paper that preceded the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), that volunteer advisers merely provide the public with ‘practical’ information (MoJ, 2010). I will focus on the question raised by this assumption: is there a difference between the advice they give and formal ‘legal advice’, and does this difference matter?

From our interviews and diaries of the Citizens Advice training programme, trainees noted that, compared to the perils of negotiating the labyrinthine intricacies of the UK benefits system, debt advice appears reasonably straightforward.

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Reflections on challenging times for advice agencies

Available Open Access under CC-BY-NC licence.

In a world dominated by austerity politics and policies, Advising in austerity provides a lively and thought-provoking account of the conditions, consequences and challenges of advice work in the UK, presenting a rare and rich view of the world of advice giving. Based on original research it examines how advisors negotiate the private troubles of those who come to Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB) and construct ways forward. Exploring how advisors are trained, the strong contributor team reflect on the challenges facing Citizens Advice Bureaux in the future, where austerity will ensure that the need for advice services increase, while funding for such services declines.

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Brian had help from a CAB solicitor preparing his claim of constructive dismissal against his employer. However, having to represent himself at hearing was an enormous strain, especially given his limited education, severe dyslexia and the stress he was already suffering as a result of the nature of the dispute.

Brian, a man in his early 40s, had worked as a car valet in a car sales yard for more than eight years. During this time, he claimed to have experienced verbal abuse from his immediate manager, the son of the owner. Brian had talked with the owner about the abuse on a number of occasions. This would improve the situation temporarily, but the bullying would resume shortly thereafter. When Brian attended a hospital appointment his manager phoned him, swearing at him and demanding he return to work. Brian collapsed shortly afterwards and was advised by a nurse not to go back to work. Brian resigned from his job. Initially Brian did not intend to seek legal redress for the way he had been treated at work and began looking for new work. After some reflection, Brian felt that his boss should not be able to get away with forcing him to leave a job that he loved. His wife encouraged Brian to contact Acas, whose representative suggested that he see a solicitor. Brian attended a free initial appointment with a solicitor who told him to submit a grievance letter to his employer and that further free legal information could be obtained from a solicitor at the CAB. Brian had a Gateway interview.

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Lucy’s story of trying to access advice in Bristol, and Sue Evans’ response on the ever-increasing and conflicting stresses and strains of advice, give a rich indication of the constantly shifting challenges facing advice seekers and those attempting to deliver advice services. In this chapter I examine the history, funding and regulatory environment of Citizens Advice, the largest voluntary sector advice organisation in the UK and the principal subject of our research programme. The structure of Citizens Advice – national umbrella organisations providing services, support and guidance to local autonomous charitable organisations that themselves rely heavily on a volunteer workforce – is both unique and critically important to the strength and adaptability of the service. Advice work forms the first ‘pillar’ of the service, while the national/ local structure also enables the service to deliver its second ‘pillar’: using the intelligence from its advice-giving work to influence social policy. In this chapter, I will focus on the ways in which the resourcing of the service has been changing, concentrating on three key forms of resource and support: the relationships between national and local organisations; the funding of bureaux; and the volunteer workers in advice. Each of these elements is changing in ways that have profound implications for the provision of advice and point to an increasingly unsettled future. I conclude with an assessment of the threats and further challenges to this voluntary sector advice service.

The Citizens Advice service is comprised of a network of local associations, each being, until recently, known as a ‘Citizens Advice Bureau’ or ‘CAB’, connected to and supported by the national bodies Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland.

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In its previous guise as the Industrial Tribunal, the Employment Tribunal was intended to provide an ‘easily accessible, speedy, informal and inexpensive’ route to workplace dispute resolution (Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations, 1968). Whether that ideal was ever achievable is open to debate but it certainly cannot be claimed for the institution that we know today. Alongside the name change, the current specialist tribunal has undergone a series of fundamental reforms – some in recent years – which have taken it ever further away from this vision. As well as being a legalistic, adversarial and often very formal arena, the service it provides to individuals who find themselves embroiled in workplace disputes is no longer free. The imposition of fees for claimants in July 2013 has been widely criticised as representing an insurmountable barrier to access to justice for many workers, making the ET unaffordable and thus preventing the effective use of a range of employment rights such as protection against unfair dismissal and discrimination and the basic right to claim unpaid wages for work already performed. However, even before the introduction of fees, many claimants found the experience of pursuing an ET claim extremely difficult, resulting in high personal and financial costs. Feelings of bewilderment and alienation are often reported by those embroiled in a highly legalistic process, particularly if self-representing. Coupled with the psychological and financial effects of an ongoing dispute with an (often former) employer, such barriers increasingly mean that many with potentially viable claims decide to walk away rather than to pursue a resolution.

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What is your approach to giving employment advice? Responses to this question from specialist and generalist advisers, as well as solicitors working with the Citizens Advice service, emphasised a particular process. While the advice interview must start with the client’s story, this initial narrative account represents only the first step; it is in what comes after this that the critical work of advice is achieved. In this chapter I explore how advisers move from the story of a dispute to the law. The practice engaged in by advisers is far more than simply an exercise in legal diagnostics. As I will explain, this represents just one stage. Other critical elements include teasing out the full range of relevant factual detail relating to the employment dispute, communicating the law to clients, and framing the law in terms of possible courses of action.

These latter aspects of the process take into account contextual issues beyond the immediate law, and involve consideration of the hurdles inherent in the Employment Tribunal process, the disposition of the client, and the level of support that the adviser can offer throughout the course of the dispute.

The advisers in our study typically began the first advice session by giving clients space to talk freely about the problem they faced at work. As described in Samuel Kirwan’s chapter, allowing them to tell their story often had the effect of putting the client at ease. But, crucially, it also commenced the first step of identifying the nature of the dispute.

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Increasing numbers of people in the United Kingdom find themselves needing advice and support in dealing with a growing range of problems. Whether it is a dispute with one’s employer, a stop on one’s benefit payments, an impending eviction, or a default on a debt, the background to this book is the rising number of individuals with ‘civil law’ issues that can rapidly lead to situations of crisis. These growing problems have a troubled relationship to the current period of ‘austerity’. Presented alongside an increasingly familiar narrative of ‘tightening our belts’ and ‘living within our means’, a series of policies pursued by UK governments since 2010 have intensified such problems, while the reductions in public funding that they have mandated, most notably to the Civil Legal Aid budget, have reduced the range and scope of many public organisations to offer advice or support. At the same time, there has been an expectation that voluntary organisations would somehow ‘fill the gap’ left by the withdrawal of public services – an expectation exemplified in David Cameron’s image of the ‘Big Society’. As a consequence, voluntary organisations providing advice and support find themselves at a particularly acute junction of these social and economic pressures – while facing problems of their own, not least reductions in their funding as the ‘austerity’ cuts work their way through the funding system.

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