The Government Equalities Office has announced the creation of a new Equality Advisory and Support Service to provide support to vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals facing discrimination. The service will provide telephone advice and support, encouraging problems to be resolved early and informally where possible. Those who need face-to-face help will be provided with lay independent advocacy support. Where problems cannot be resolved informally or through alternative dispute resolution and the individual has no access to legal advice, the service will be able to help them prepare to issue a claim.
The announcement comes in response to the consultation ‘Building a fairer Britain: Reform of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’, which set out proposals for new arrangements for providing equality information, advice and support following the Government’s decision to cease funding for the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) helpline and legal grants programme in 2012. Although the majority of respondents were against the establishment of the new service, the Government claims it will provide the same level of support on human rights as the current EHRC helpline.
The Government decided against supporting a specific discrimination and human rights education programme, or providing central government funding for discrimination claims in addition to legal aid. However, the Government confirmed that legal aid will continue to be available for claims relating to breaches of the Equality Act 2010 after the legal aid reforms planned for April 2013. As part of those reforms, people applying for civil legal aid for discrimination claims will usually be expected to apply via a ‘mandatory telephone gateway’. The gateway call operator will then assess a caller’s specific needs on a case-by-case basis and will, as appropriate, refer them to a face-to-face advice service if this is considered necessary.
The Government also intends to support the not-for-profit advice sector via its recently announced Advice Services Fund and will undertake a review of free advice services.