From the TUC

Peers speak out against legal aid cuts

24 Nov 2011, by Guest in Society & Welfare

The House of Lords had a late night on Monday as Peers spent eight hours debating the Government’s bill to cut legal aid. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill had its second reading in the upper chamber on 21st November. 42 Peers spoke about legal aid and all of these (barring the Minister) were against the proposals.

The bill sets out Government plans to cut legal aid for many areas of law. The proposals include removing legal aid for debt cases, except those at crisis point when your home is at immediate risk. The bill would cut free help for family cases that do not involve domestic violence. Other areas such as benefits, employment and clinical negligence will be removed from the scope of legal aid altogether.

A previous Touchstone post by Will Horwitz of Community Links explained the impact on the vulnerable, and the folly of removing low cost help that could save the state money down the line as problems spiral out of control. For example, the social cost of evicting a family has been estimated at £34,000, where the cost of housing advice that could stop that problem in its tracks is just £157. This point was not missed on Monday. Lord Davidson drew attention to the costs that would arise when people were forced to deal with problems alone:

“We know that where the vulnerable lose out, their lives can sometimes tip over into ill health, homelessness and family breakdown. Of course, it is then, only then, that the state will be obliged to intervene. It costs £150 per case of debt advice, but many thousands are required to be spent to resolve a case of homelessness…The Civil Justice Council, the non-departmental public body that advises the Ministry of Justice on civil justice, states in its recent report on access to justice for litigants in person:…”The design of the legal aid reductions and changes will take away routes to accessible early advice (including by the damage done to the advice sector, which in turn damages access to wider pro bono legal services) and leave intervention too late or denied altogether. As a result we will find more cases started by self-represented claimants that need not have been started, more cases where self-represented defendants are involved for longer than need be, and more cases not starting when they should be started so that they can be resolved. We will find problems clustering, with increasingly wide and serious consequences for the individual, for families, and the state”.” (Column 827 and 828)

The false economy of cuts that will hit the most vulnerable was keenly felt, particularly in clinical negligence. Lord Clement-Jones said:

“In many ways the most unfair and emotionally disturbing aspect of the Bill, however, is the proposal to do away with legal aid for clinical negligence except in exceptional cases. This is particularly because very ill and very injured children are often involved.” … “All for what? An estimated saving of £10 million. The NHS Litigation Authority said that removing legal aid for clinical negligence would undoubtedly cause NHS legal costs to escalate massively and increase public expenditure.” (Column 913)

Peers voiced concern about the timing of changes to legal aid, which are proposed just as welfare reform goes through. Baroness Grey-Thompson spoke of the impact on people needing to challenge decisions about their benefits:

“No benefits system is easy to understand. However, to push technical advice to volunteers or to Jobcentre Plus is not appropriate. Specialist advice is required in compiling evidence and also to meet the tight timescales in the appeals process. I am very interested in this area as I have an amendment to the Welfare Reform Bill, now in Grand Committee, which seeks to remove an extra step to the appeals process. One reason that I believe in protecting legal aid for disabled people is that in 60 per cent of appeals in which disabled people were eventually found to qualify for ESA, zero points had been allocated at the initial assessment. That is a massive turnaround, highlighting some of the problems with the assessment process, which quite rightly has been discussed elsewhere. However, it is clear to me that it is right to support people through the appeals process and this must be protected.”  (Column 834)

Baroness Doocey agreed:

“Quite apart from the difficulties that the Government’s proposals would create for disabled people, I fear that the Government are making a rod for their own back. …Currently, 40 per cent of cases taken to appeal in relation to employment and support allowance decisions are upheld… the benefits system will remain complicated for large numbers of disabled people as well as for Department for Work and Pensions decision-makers; and incorrect decisions are likely to continue to be made relating to the benefits and support received by disabled people…It is worth noting the ambitious scale of the Government’s welfare reforms… with a reform on this scale it is almost inevitable that there will be an increase in the number of inaccurate benefit decisions and that disabled people will need legal advice to challenge these.” (Columns 921-922)

The Government has ignored concerns that were repeatedly raised about the cost of these cuts outweighing any gain, and their majority defeated key amendments that would mitigate the worst effects of the bill when they were proposed in the Commons. The Lords debate gives hope that legal aid will fare better in the upper house, but with the recent progress of NHS reform fresh in mind, we can take nothing for granted. All eyes will now be on Peers to make principled decisions as the bill enters the committee stage.

You can still help to support the campaign for free legal aid. The Lords debate showed the value of real life examples of the impact of free help and you can share these and take other action now. Go to Save Legal Aid, Justice For All and Sound Off for Justice for more.

Guest Post: Gary Crothers is a family caseworker at Howells LLP. This blog was co-written by Carita Thomas, a solicitor in the immigration and civil liberties teams at Howells. Both belong to Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL), a group with around 2,000 members nationwide who are students and junior lawyers all committed to working in areas of law traditionally funded by legal aid.