Legal aid cuts hitting the most vulnerable
Yesterday’s Evening Standard reported on the millionaire criminals given £200,000 in legal aid, continuing a tradition of newspaper reporting on footballers, business tycoons, and high-ranking police officers who are lucky enough to benefit from the often misunderstood ‘fourth pillar of the welfare state.’
Left unreported is the tragedy that Ken Clarke’s £350m per year cut to the system – to be debated at Report Stage in the Commons next week – will leave high-profile cases like these untouched. Nor will it properly tackle the extortionate £124m spent each year administering the system. Instead it will deny 650,000 people on low incomes access to vital help with issues like benefit appeals, getting out of debt, keeping their job, or avoiding harassment by rogue landlords.
These cases can cost as little as £150 each, are often delivered by charities and advice agencies like Citizens Advice Bureaux and Law Centres, and even save the taxpayer money – between £2 and £8 for every £1 spent – by stopping problems spiralling out of control at greater expense to the state.
The civil legal aid budget (where the cuts are concentrated) has shrunk 24% in real terms between 1997 and 2004 (pdf), and by 15% in the last 10 years. Over the summer two large legal aid charities closed, partly in anticipation of a 10% cut in legal aid fees which came in at the start of this month. Local advice charities are increasingly struggling as local authority cuts hit hard. And if the changes in the legal aid bill go through, many more will close next year, leaving people with nowhere to turn for help, other than perhaps their local MP.
In social welfare law, only housing and debt cases involving ‘immediate risk of loss of home’ and employment cases involving discrimination will remain eligible for legal aid funding. All other social welfare law cases, including 100% of benefits advice, is being removed – even for complex appeals and tribunals – just as the benefits system undergoes its most significant reform in decades. The Liberal Democrat conference voted in favour of a motion to retain legal aid for advice on appeals, but this is yet to manifest itself in a government change of heart.
Meanwhile almost all legal aid for family disputes is cut, for example with negotiating a divorce settlement and access to children. The only exception is for cases involving domestic violence, to ensure people will not have to face their abuser alone in the family courts. However, even this concession is unsatisfactory, as the qualifying definition of and criteria around ‘domestic violence’ contained in the Bill risk excluding many victims.
During committee stage strong arguments for amendments and improvements on a whole range of issues were bluntly rejected by government, who continue to argue for reform largely based on the need to save money. Yet their proposals, which could end up costing more overall, and seem to protect administration spending over advice for the vulnerable, must be improved.