3: The Shift to Digital Advice and Benefit Services: Implications for Advice Providers and Their Clients

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Policy reform and funding allocations are currently directing advice provision away from face-to-face assistance and towards telephone and digital services. The shift towards digital channels has also assumed centre stage within the introduction of Universal Credit, which requires all claims to be applied for and managed via an online account.

In this chapter I introduce this ‘digitisation’ of advice and welfare benefits as one of the key challenges the advice sector is currently facing. Drawing on interviews carried out with homeless people and the staff that support them, I explore the implications of these changes for both advice providers and their clients.

Effective from April 2013, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), significantly limited the availability of face-to-face advice and introduced the single mandatory Civil Legal Advice Gateway (the Gateway) for advice funded through legal aid. Under these new measures, rather than having the option of initially meeting an adviser face-to-face, people applying for legal aid must first be assessed by a telephone operator from the Civil Legal Advice service. Apart from a few exemptions, the Gateway is now the only route through which people can access legal advice on the topics of debt, discrimination and special educational needs. Following an initial review, the government intends the Gateway to be expanded to almost all other areas of civil law.

The Gateway is driven primarily by financial motivations, with telephone advice thought to be less time-consuming and therefore cheaper than face-to-face advice. In addition, since telephone advice is considered to facilitate quicker and easier access to advice services than scheduled appointments, it is thought to be of equal quality or even preferable to face-to-face advice.

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