Single parents slip through the advice net
UK advice provision is fragmented, underfunded and patchy, says research
Lone parents are not getting the advice they need because advice provision is fragmented, underfunded and patchy, according to research by Cardiff University. The research, published by One Parent Families, was funded by The Nuffield Foundation.
Looking at 12 types of legal and social welfare problems faced by single parents - including debt, contact, benefits and child maintenance - depending on the problem-type, between one quarter and a half of single parents surveyed for the report found it either difficult or impossible to get the necessary help. Forty one per cent of respondents had wanted face-to-face advice but had been unable to find it; almost a third (32%) wanted telephone advice but could not get it. Legal aid problems prevented 12% from getting help with their problems. Benefits, contact and child support problems were most likely to give rise to these access difficulties.
A third of lone parents surveyed (33%) had significant problems with benefits, 42% had significant contact problems, 32% had significant violence or harassment problems and 32% significant debt problems. Crucially, problems usually came in clusters and often lasted for a long time - often over a year.
Many lone parents with significant problems did not seek help with some problems, suggesting they did not know they could get help and many wanted help but could not find what they needed. This led to fewer than half of lone parents with a significant problem of any particular type achieving some level of access to help - assistance with divorce being the only real exception. Thirty four per cent of respondents found it impossible to get access to help with benefits, 28% found it impossible to get help with CSA problems, 25% problems with the family home. Just over a fifth (21%) found it impossible to get help with contact/residence problems.
Launching the report today, One Parent Families called for a new, joined-up strategy on advice provision to link family law and social welfare provision together. More funding for advice on social welfare problems and a new, joined-up approach to funding of advice was also crucial, the charity said: the current fragmentation of funding streams across government is resulting in inadequate provision in areas of greatest need, in spite of the nationwide coverage of the Community Legal Services Partnerships.
Director of One Parent Families Kate Green said: "Legal aid advice provision is currently targeted at relationship breakdown but as our study shows, many lone parents are grappling alone with issues around benefits, debt and contact, well beyond the initial crisis of separation. For some the problems go on and on and yet they have little idea where to turn. Particularly in light of its child poverty reduction targets and of its social inclusion aims, the Government should now take action to increase funding for advice provision to give proper weight to social welfare law. When parents have persistent problems with debt or benefits or housing, it is likely to have a serious impact on childrens lives. The research confirms that lots of single parents do not see a solicitor even for problems within traditional family law so we are concerned about the focus on solicitors in the planning of advice provision and the emphasis on them as the prime entry point to broader sources of advice. Our findings raise a question about whether it makes sense to have solicitors as the gatekeepers to the range of advice that single parents so clearly need."
Richard Moorhead, senior lecturer at Cardiff Law School, Cardiff University, said: ¡§Lone parents struggle with a poisonous cocktail of legal and social problems, that often run on for years after relationship breakdown. Incidence of depression was high and lone parents routinely struggled with debt, contact, violence and benefit problems unaided. It is difficult to imagine a clearer case for strong support from the Community Legal Service and yet far too many lone parents struggle to find the advice that they need. Whether the cause is advice deserts or something more subtle, what we need to remember is that access to justice problems have human consequences.
"This research shows there is a strong case for bringing the funding of social welfare law up towards the levels provided for traditional family law services and for making those services more visible and more accessible to lone parents."
Key findings from the report include:
- Lone parents experienced similar levels of social welfare problems as they did traditional family law problems and over half (55%) had approached three or more sources of help.
- Nearly all lone parents who had gone through a divorce had contacted a solicitor but 45% of lone parents in the survey had not contacted a solicitor at any stage for help. Even with classic family law problems such as violence and contact, substantial numbers either did not approach solicitors or got more substantial help elsewhere.
- Respondents problems were often multiple: 64% faced more than one justiciable problem (21% faced only one). With the exception of debt, no more than around 10% or fewer of their problems occurred in isolation.
- Having found an advice source, a number of accessibility problems impinged on lone parents ability to get help: 61% had struggled to get through to advisers on the telephone, a quarter had gone to an advice source, waited too long to be seen and given up, 21% said an advice source was too expensive
- Getting help with contact/residence problems was particularly difficult for lone parents - they were more unsure where to turn for help with this type of concern that for most other problems (other than benefits problems)
- The perceived quality of advice received was variable. Solicitors were generally seen as being very accessible, quick to respond and good at explaining the process. But they did not seem particularly able to improve the situation of lone parents. CABx were seen as improving the situation but were difficult to access due to limited opening hours. The Benefits Agency (BA) and the Child Support Agency (CSA) were perceived as not being accessible, taking too long to respond and not improving lone parents situation. Only 29% of lone parents surveyed said they were satisfied overall with the help provided by the CSA. Fifty eight per cent were satisfied overall with help from the BA. (The BA and Employment Service are now merged as Jobcentre Plus).
- Twenty six per cent of lone parents had significant problems dealing with child support through the CSA. A third of those with problems with child support through the CSA could not find the help they needed.
- For all problems save a divorce, the proportion of respondents not seeking help with their problem was a quarter or higher. Divorce, adult maintenance and the future of the family home were the problems with which lone parents are most likely to seek help. These fit neatly with the areas most likely to be provided by solicitors but debt problems, for example, were common but over half of those with significant debt problems did not seek help with them
- Just over a third (34%) of lone parents with benefits problems had not sought help for them. Of those who had, many had turned to multiple sources.
- After benefits and contact/residence issues, debt was the most common problem for single parents. Just short of a third had significant debt problems.
- Forty three per cent of lone parents in the survey had dealt with violence or harassment. For over half of those, the problem went on for over a year. One third did not seek help with violence/ harassment problems.
- About a half of the problem-types experienced by lone parents appeared to last a year or more and data from the focus groups conducted with advisers (see Editors notes below) indicated that advisers saw many of their lone parent clients at or around the time of separation.
- As a source of help, telephone helplines were positively regarded. Just over 77% of those surveyed regarded telephone advice as a good way of getting advice on most problems and 80% regarded it as a good way of finding sources of advice. Sixty one per cent said there were some sorts of problem that were best dealt with on the phone.
Richard Moorhead | EurekAlert!