Neil Purslow: “There is an absolute crisis of public access to legal support”

The CIO of market-leading litigation funder Therium Capital Management speaks to us about its not-for-profit arm, Therium Access, which was founded in March 2019 against a backdrop of decades-long cuts to legal aid.

Posted Thursday, January 30th 2020
Neil Purslow: “There is an absolute crisis of public access to legal support”

Leaders League: Can you tell us a bit about how Therium Access came to be, and how exactly it functions?

Neil Purslow: This is something we’d had in gestation for many years. We saw a number of cases, particularly early on, that were interesting and meritorious but unsuitable for commercial funding. That laid the seed for the not-for-profit arm, but obviously it takes years to put that kind of thing in place. We had to get ourselves to a certain size and scale.

 

Would it be fair to say that it focuses exclusively on access to justice and the rule of law?

That’s the headline. We’ve deliberately kept its mandate very wide, to give us flexibility and respond to where we see the need emerging. It’s all for access to justice and the rule of law, but in their many forms.

We have a list of things that would fall within the mandate: right to legal representation; due process; proper and efficient administration of justice; advancement of human rights; promotion of equality; protection of children, the elderly, the disabled, minorities, asylum seekers and other disadvantaged groups; advancement of environmental protection or improvement, promotion of legal education that furthers the above causes; or any other case or project in which a prospective claimant would not have access to justice without financial assistance.

Some of the feedback we heard early was that this broad mandate might lead to a deluge of applications. But at this point, we wanted to give ourselves the flexibility to determine which way to go.

 

How much does Therium invest in it per year, and how many cases has it taken on this year?

We expect to invest about £1 million a year. So far, we’re at £900,000 in the first year.

There were four grants in the first round; these were all project-based. One was the Personal Support Unit, which puts advisers into courts in order to help litigants in person. There was Crosslight Advice, a debt advisory business that sits under the shadow of Grenfell Tower [the social housing apartment block that caught fire in June 2017, causing 72 deaths] – that helps keep people away from bankruptcy courts and bailiffs. The third was the Suffolk Law Centre, and the fourth, LawWorks, deals with representation of people in the social security and benefit tribunal system.

The second round, which closed in August, was for the Child Poverty Action Group, JUSTICE, Advocate, the Free Representation Unit, National Family Mediation, the Speakeasy Law Centre in Cardiff [in Wales], the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens, and the Central England Law Centre.

The first round was meant to impact 1,800 people; the second should impact tens of thousands of people, directly or indirectly. One way of helping is providing funding to a project that provides or enables a person or resource to in turn enable access to advice. The Personal Support Unit and the Law Centres are for this. Alternatively, you can help train people who can do that. LawWorks trains solicitors working in City firms, typically, who want to do pro bono work and give advice to benefit claimants in the social security tribunal. But they need training, because they don’t have the expertise. So we funded the trainer, LawWorks. So there, we don’t provide people – we provide trainers who provide people.

Then there are organisations that do strategic litigation as part of an overall plan – the Child Poverty Action Group and the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens, for instance. We’re not funding litigation directly, but we’re funding an organisation that will get involved in judicial reviews or different kinds of litigation to pursue a purpose that fits within our mandate.

Advocate, one of our beneficiaries, supports pro bono efforts by barristers. We were providing an administrator that would help connect barristers to those who approach the Bar. JUSTICE produces reports and recommendations on access to justice. That’s at a public policy level.

So we’re interacting at different levels in the system – trying to push development of the system, trying to provide boots on the ground, and trying to provide resources that help and coordinate other people’s efforts.

There are also a couple of individual cases, but we haven’t yet announced the details.

 

How does Therium Access split its time and efforts between projects and individual cases?

We do both. We have a good understanding of the litigation world and how litigation is used, and we’re more attracted to litigation than any other organisation or grant-giver. We’re interested in opportunities where the litigation process can be used to achieve change in some way. A good example would be a judicial review – say, where a public body uses its powers inappropriately, and a charity gets involved to challenge that exercise of power and change the way those powers are used for the better. There’s a wider purpose to the litigation, and we’re helping that process be brought.

 

How do your investors feel about Therium investing £1 million in cases with no chance of return?

There is no chance of return for them – the most we would expect or hope is that we could recover the capital we’re putting into cases, which we would then recycle back into cases and projects. Everyone understands and accepts that, which is very encouraging. We’re gratified at how positively the investors have reacted to this.

Therium Access is part and parcel of how we think we have an important role to play for the outcomes that we can achieve. It’s important that we play that role as a litigation funder – that we do it, and are seen to do it, as a responsible player in our space. That message resonates very strongly with our investors, which goes to show that they have a broader view of our activity. We’re more than just [an asset] manager offering straight returns.

 

Could you walk me through a case study from a funder’s perspective?

We have a person, Jeunesse Mensier, dedicated to Therium Access. She’s the grant programme director, and used to be an investment officer at Therium, but now does nothing else except look after Access. There’s also an advisory committee sitting at the top, making recommendations to the board in Jersey as to what to do.

Twice a year, we have grant rounds with deadlines. Organisations will make grant applications via a form. Those get shortlisted by Jeunesse, who will go through and score them and develop recommendations for the advisory committee. That’s quite a detailed process; a lot of work goes into those recommendations. Jeunesse will talk to different people and probe different aspects of the applications, from the commercial aspects to the impact it would have.

It’s important that grant applications don’t waste the time and resources of under-resourced organisations, but we do need to deploy our money properly and thoughtfully, with proper checks. Jeunesse handles that balance.

 

What have been the key achievements of this arm so far?

Going live! That sounds glib, but going live is not to be sneezed at. £1 million is a relatively significant investment from us, and it’s a long-term investment plan. It’s taken us some years to get to a level where we can do it properly and at this level.

It’s too early to see results on cases so far, but certainly the feedback we’ve been getting from the first round of grants has been very positive. Law centres have had their budgets cut, and are closing left, right and centre. The Suffolk Law Centre has been particularly badly affected; Suffolk is already a disadvantaged part of the UK. Our funding was critical in keeping the Centre open and moving.

With the Speakeasy Law Centre, we’re funding someone who will become a trainee solicitor and eventually qualify. What we’re doing there is a) giving someone a route into a career, and b) training them in legal aid work. That’s a real long-term benefit: putting a real person on the ground in Cardiff.

 

How recent is the cutting of law centre budgets, and what tangible effects has it had?

The legal aid cuts started under the Blair government, but have continued since the financial crisis. There’s been a huge squeeze. This is something our advisory committee feels very strongly about. Lord Falconer and Lord Thomas have discussed this in the press.

There’s a bigger problem here: an absolute crisis of provision of public access to legal advice and support. That shows up in odd ways. There’s a trickle-down effect: no legal aid means people can’t afford lawyers. So they get caught up in proceedings and have to represent themselves in proceedings, such as family proceedings – though [Therium beneficiary] National Family Mediation tries to keep people out of those if possible.

Litigants representing themselves, without guidance or advice, take up a lot more of courts’ time and resources. This slowing of the system means other people can’t get hearing dates. Think about family cases, which are about financial resolution but also about contact between parents and children during the process. If people can’t get the hearing dates, they can’t resolve contact disputes. This impacts the parents and children who, with no resolution, can’t get on with their lives. The Free Representation Unit and Personal Support Unit try to alleviate the underlying problem here.

We’re also training lawyers to help benefit claimants in the social benefits tribunal. In those examples, people are being refused benefits based on administrative decisions, which they have to go to the tribunal to challenge. 90% of the challenges are successful, which means a huge number of people are being refused benefits who deserve and need them. Without assistance, they can’t get into the tribunal. It hugely impacts a particularly disadvantaged part of society.

 

This non-profit arm is still a relatively new venture. How do you plan to grow it in the coming years?

You’ll see us becoming involved in more individual cases as the word about Therium Access gets out to more lawyers. More materially, as Therium grows, we intend to grow Therium Access, and roll it out across jurisdictions. At the moment, the advisory committee is UK-based and UK-focused; their expertise and knowledge of what’s needed is UK-centric. As we roll this out, we will have an advisory committee in other jurisdictions – including the US, Australia and Europe – with people on the ground who know what the needs are and how to address them.

 

Interview by Arjun Sajip