From the TUC

Legal aid cuts hitting the most vulnerable

18 Oct 2011, by Guest in Society & Welfare

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.

ACTION: Please take a moment to write to your MP about the issue, via the Justice for All campaign.
GUEST POST: Will Horwitz is Communications Co-ordinator for Community Links, an innovative east London charity working to tackle the causes and consequences of poverty.

2 Responses to Legal aid cuts hitting the most vulnerable

  1. Clare Fernyhough
    Oct 19th 2011, 10:46 am

    Someone ought to climb up onto the ‘Lady Justice’ bronze statue, remove both of the arms, and put on a blindfold because there is no justice left in this country except for those who have the means to pay for it.

    In the space of one year, notwithstanding the global financial crisis, the rights won over the past century for the working poor, for middle income earners in terms of union support to make sure that their incomes and pensions keep up with inflation, for those requiring social housing, for the vulnerable and poor claiming benefits and receiving pensions, for equal access to justice for all, have not just been reformed or their budgets cut, but have been completely swept away.

    Today and over the next few days the Dale Farm camp is being dismantled. The police have used tazers, despite these being banned for public disturbances. They have broken down a legitamate private wall, despite their being a court order in place to prevent that. They have cut off the electricity to residents, despite their being vulnerable and ill people there who are reliant on power and who might die without it. Basidon Council and other councils have not provided enough sites for travellers across the country, despite the govenment providing over 60 million pounds for this purpose; the money is instead siphoned off for other projects. Basildon have made no other arrangements for residents of the site, dispite having 10 years to do so, but were quite willing to spend 8 million pounds in costs to evict them.

    It is a taste of what social housing tenants can expect a few years from now. Millions of people will have nowhere else to go, despite analysts and concerned groups like ‘Shelter’ and the ‘National Housing Federation’ warning them of this. The difference is that they will pick us off one by one, clearing each house dependent on the progress of individual eviction notices. Many I speak to, working people, pensioners and the disabled and unemployed say they will be ‘taken out in a box’ first. Unlike the Dale Farm residents, these residents have a legal right to their homes as secure tenants, but it will make no difference.

    Justice? There is no Justice.

  2. Legal aid cuts hitting the most vulnerable « Act of Defiance
    Oct 19th 2011, 7:14 pm

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