Law for Health is a new UCL initiative working with the Ministry of Justice, NHS England, third sector and industry, which aims to show the benefits of embedding free legal services in GP surgeries or hospitals to tackle the social causes of ill health.
The group aims to highlight how social welfare issues predominantly affect low income and disadvantaged groups and can harm both mental and physical health - contributing to health inequalities. Such issues might be from poor quality, damp housing, or unsafe working conditions - both of which cause health problems but have legal remedies.
A report published to coincide with the launch of Law for Health highlights how many issues of inequality have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic - increasing the urgency of action on health inequalities and highlighting the centrality of social and economic circumstances on people’s wellbeing.
Professor Dame Hazel Genn (UCL Laws) who founded the UCL Centre for Access to Justice and established a Health Justice Partnership in Newham in 2016 has been leading the research into the value of Health Justice Partnerships, in which access to free legal advice is provided in health settings like GP practices or hospitals, said: "I’m really thrilled to have reached this day, which is a culmination of many years of work. It’s wonderful to launch Law for Health.
"Many people in public health and legal services who deal with access to justice services have an intrinsic understanding of the connection [between law and health] but don’t have a shared language.
"There is a bi-directional link between law and health. Having a legal problem could affect someone’s health which could lead to a cascade, which could lead to a crisis.
"On the other hand, poor health can create legal needs - as someone who experiences a health problem may have an inability to work, loss of employment and non-payment to work, which could lead to eviction and homelessness."
In the UK, Health Justice Partnerships have existed for many years, often as time-limited projects or pilot interventions. However, evidence from the UK and around the world shows that they can achieve important benefits for individuals, organisations and communities.
Cross-sector collaboration has become a policy focus in both the health and legal fields, laying the foundations for growth in this area. And both the NHS and the Ministry of Justice support this approach through Integrated Care in the NHS and integrated and accessible legal support hubs.
In 2018, the UCL Centre for Access to Justice reviewed Health Justice Partnerships in England and Wales and found there were over 350 Health Justice Partnerships across the country with several different kinds of collaborations - some of which had in-house legal advisers at GP surgeries to enable patients to easily access the help they needed and avoid "referral fatigue".
However, while the partnerships were well received, most funding was provided on a short-term basis, with almost seven in ten (68%) having funding for three years or less, and almost four in ten (37%) having funding for one year or less.
Now, as part of UCL’s new Centre for the Health of the Public, Law for Health is calling for Health Justice Partnerships to move beyond pilots to inform and support policy development.
Matthew Smerdon from The Legal Education Foundation said: "The intense pressures on health systems are well recognised. Seeking to work with health audiences to take up these approaches is not to add to these pressures but to harness a set of skills and tools that can reduce them, either by addressing issues before they escalate into more complex health problems, or by playing an integrated role in health and care services when people need them.
"The impacts of Covid-19 on deprivation and health inequalities make this work even more urgent."