The Government wants to expand a trial where legal clinics have been placed within GP practices.
Providing legal advice within GP surgeries can improve patients’ mental and physical health, its initial research suggests.
An initial evaluation of health justice partnerships (HJPs) where GPs, nurses and receptionists can book patients into legal advice sessions found the ‘gold standard’ model is to co-locate legal services within the practice.
For the research, commissioned by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), researchers interviewed seven clients who had used such a service and 13 heads of HJPs, 11 of whom were from Citizens Advice.
They found clients who had either been referred to the legal clinics by a healthcare professional or signposted to a hub reported a range of positive outcomes on their health as well as their situation, which could be a financial or housing issue, for example.
Having the legal advice sessions in the practice itself was felt by some to be an advantage due to ease of access, the report from IFF Research and York Health Economics Consortium found.
Most of the advice hubs in the study, including ones in Dorset, Warrington and Blackpool, were placed in the GP surgery. Funding came from local authorities, PCNs, and NHS commissioners as well as other sources, including charities.
In Warrington, 18 GP surgeries take part in the advice hub with 10 practices hosting two-hour weekly advice sessions, reaching up to 600 clients a year.
A review of the literature also done by the researchers found there is evidence to support the health benefits of offering legal advice in the GP setting, as well as quicker resolution of the legal problem.
It is part of a plan from the MoJ to test and evaluate the provision of holistic legal support hubs. The researchers recommended that the provision in the GP setting should now be explored with a larger group of clients.
Previous research has suggested 64% of adults have experienced a legal problem in the last four years.
The fact that legal rights-based problems and health problems can present together ‘makes a case for the potential value of co-located advice’, the MoJ said in the report.
Researchers recommended that further work should ‘robustly estimate the impact of HJPs on the speed of resolution of legal problems, better social-economic outcomes and improved health outcomes’ by carrying out ‘before’ and ‘after’ surveys with clients.
Further research should also include in-depth interviews with healthcare professionals and frontline advisers, it said.
Last year, a survey carried out on behalf of the MoJ had found doctors were the third most popular source of assistance after friends/family and professional solicitors by people seeking assistance with a civil justice problem.
Professor Azeem Majeed, GP and professor of primary care and public health at Imperial College London, said: ‘I do think people need access to good legal advice but I don’t feel GP surgeries are the best place to locate these services. Citizen’s Advice Services organised by local government would be a more suitable location in my view.
‘We need to avoid making GP surgeries the default for addressing all the social problems that afflict UK society.’