Let’s keep all our help on hand, says Marina Sinclair-Chin
WE ALL need a little help sometimes. Whether it’s a problem at work, dealing with an injury, issues with a neighbour, or the aftermath of a relationship breakdown, life is full of times where a little guidance can go a long way. A lot of the time, people manage these situations on their own, or with support from friends and families. However, sometimes that won’t be enough. When that’s the case, where do you turn?
Scotland has an incredible legal and advice sector supporting people to manage and resolve the issues life throws at them. Here are some of the sources of advice and support available when people face challenges:
• Solicitors – when faced with a legal problem, it can be invaluable to have a solicitor by your side. If you cannot afford to pay for a solicitor, legal aid is available to people who meet certain eligibility criteria (based on your financial situation and the nature of your case). You may need to pay part of the cost through a contribution, but the system makes getting a solicitor’s help affordable for people who might not be able to otherwise. In Scotland, unlike in England, initial advice and assistance is available for every aspect of Scots law, so whatever the problem, a local solicitor will be able to help. Information on how to find a solicitor is available on the Law Society of Scotland’s website. More information on legal aid, including a calculator to see if you would be eligible, is available from the Scottish Legal Aid Board.
• Law centres and clinics – if you do not qualify for legal aid, but still need some legal advice, there are a number of places that might be able to offer free support. There are community law centres, such as the Govan Law Centre in Glasgow and the Dundee North Law Centre, where you can go for advice and support and which are run and organised in partnership with local communities. Also, many universities now have law clinics run by law students who are supervised by solicitors and can provide assistance in a number of areas.
• Citizens Advice Bureaux – located all around Scotland, CABs can provide independent and confidential support and advice on a wide range of issues, including benefits, debt, and other legal problems.
• Mediation – in many situations, mediation is an excellent way of resolving difficult disputes by using a neutral third party to help people discuss the issues and come to a solution. This can be particularly helpful where you need to maintain a good relationship with the other party in the future. Mediation can be used in a wide range of disputes. Relationship Scotland can help you find local family mediation services, and Sacro offers a community mediation service in a number of areas. Free mediation services for family or other disputes might also be available through your local Sheriff Court, or through legal aid.
The people working in the legal and advice sector are making a difference every day. From helping someone to stay in their home and manage their debts, to making sure that children are able to spend time with both their parents, the work done here is of huge benefit to our society. On top of the pure advice and information work, these people go above and beyond to provide much needed emotional support and signposting to other services, ensuring that those in stressful situations, and often with multiple issues, get all the help they need.
Making sure that people get the right advice and support at the right time leads to better outcomes on an individual level. Civil justice problems can have a serious effect on people’s lives, with the potential to lead to a range of negative impacts such as mental and physical ill health, relationship breakdowns, loss of income, and loss of confidence. These impacts lead to costs to the person affected, to public services, and to the wider economy.
Quite simply, over and above the need to address the huge human cost and distress of unresolved problems, spending money on advice saves money further down the line. It can stop small issues from turning into serious problems, and can prevent a chain reaction of one problem leading to another – for example, an employment problem leading to a loss of income, creating debt problems, escalating to a threat of eviction, and triggering a stress-related illness.
Whatever the issue, and whatever stage it is at, there are options. Making sure we keep the legal and advice sector in Scotland running well and available to all, and making sure that people know where to go when they need help, is as important now as ever before.
In times of limited funding and increasing demand, we need to support these organisations, and support individuals to access them.
• Marina Sinclair-Chin is the Law Society of Scotland civil legal aid co-ordinator www.lawscot.org.uk/find-a-solicitor