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Holistic problems need holistic advice

by Tracey Reilly, CAS policy manager (Strong Communities team).

This article was published in the Herald on 8 August 2022.

Recent research from the Scottish Government shows that one in three of us have been involved in some kind of civil legal dispute within the last three years.

At first glance, that might seem a shockingly high figure. Most of us wrestling with civil law disputes don’t characterise them as formal legal issues. They’re just messy, irritating problems of every-day life. For example, trying to get the landlord to fix the dripping tap in the bathroom, negotiating with your boss for holiday or sick pay owed, or resolving issues around child access or maintenance with your ex. But in many cases, the legal aspect of the issue is just the tip of the iceberg, a small part of a wider problem such as debt, relationship breakdown, or redundancy.

The Citizens Advice network helps tens of thousands of people across Scotland every year, and cases range from single issues to multiple issues that cluster together as part of a much bigger problem. Advice given by a CAB is not compartmentalised. We know that clients often have inter-connected needs and that seeking advice on one issue often leads to getting advice on others.

Recent analysis of a sample of more than 450,000 cases dealt with by the Scottish CAB network highlighted that in 40% of these cases, our advisers ended up giving advice on more than just the one topic the client originally presented with. This was especially true when clients approached us looking for advice on legal proceedings; two thirds of those clients received advice on other matters as well. For example, consumer; relationship or employment issues. At the moment many people need some advice on financial problems.

This research confirmed what we have long known; that people have complex needs and that advice services need to be able to respond to that in a holistic way. We want to support people taking part in legal processes so that they understand those processes and feel confident in engaging with the justice system. But people should be able to seek advice from a single place, so that they only have to tell their story once, and don’t have to be referred on to multiple agencies.

People coming to CAB for advice on legal issues often need wider support beyond the legal process. Services which provide advice on single issues or exclusively on legal matters may struggle to meet the multiple needs of clients. The Citizens Advice network is a multi-channel service, offering people free, confidential, and impartial advice in a way that suits them – whether that is over the phone, online, or face-to-face in CABs.

The pandemic has made remote working and digital access to services more commonplace, but it is important not to under-estimate the importance of that face-to-face advice. This is especially true for vulnerable clients with complex needs. We are committed to ensuring people get the advice they need in the way suits them best.

So, if you are struggling with an issue that has a legal dimension, whether it’s a consumer problem, or something regarding family, housing or employment, remember that your local CAB offers you that holistic support, regardless of whether the problem is big or small, one-off or interconnected. We don’t judge, we just help.