Last stages of the Legal Aid bill – time to stand up for access to justice

Guest post from

Natalie Sedacca – a member of Young Legal Aid Lawyers.

Carers, and those they care for, are facing a series of attacks by the Government, such as the closure of day centres, tightening of care criteria, and threats to carers’ grants. The already low level of benefits paid to carers is not helped by the Welfare Reform Act. The blog has already reported how this does nothing to alleviate financial hardship for family carers, and how the move from DisabilityLiving Allowance to a “personal independence payment” will impact carers as well as disabled people. In this context, access to specialist legal advice to challenge poor decisions about benefits is more vital than ever.

But this help is under threat if the Government gets its way on a law about to go before MPs. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill sets out Government plans to make sweeping cuts, severely restricting free advice for many types of legal problem. The Bill has gone through Parliament and is now at its final stage, returning to be considered by the House of Commons after April 17th.

Campaigners took heart from the House of Lords where the Government was voted down on no less than eleven amendments that would soften the impact of the Bill, more than any other Bill in the last 30 years. Nine amendments were about legal aid. The Lords were especially critical of Government plans to remove legal aid for challenging bad decisions about benefits. Legal aid is currently provided in 135,000 welfare benefits cases per year. According to the Government’s own equality impact assessment, proposals to remove welfare benefits cases from the scope of legal aid would deny at least 78,000 disabled people specialist legal advice. 58% of these people would be ill or disabled, compared with 19% of the population as a whole. Seen in the context of the radical reforms to benefits introduced via the Welfare Reform Act, the removal of such advice would have a disastrous effect on disabled people and their carers. The Lords introduced an amendment to preserve specialist advice for people challenging decisions about their benefits at appeals and reviews. This would still save £8.5 million on what is spent on benefits advice now but it would mean about 100,000 people could continue to get help at the most complex stage of their case.

Other amendments passed by the Lords include a provision to keep legal aid for cases involving children, and one that would scrap plans for a mandatory telephone gateway to access help, ensuring people have choice over how they access advice.

While the Government wants the voluntary sector to fill in when legal aid advice goes, it is difficult to see how not for profit agencies can step up to such a major challenge at the same time as losing£100 million a year because of other government cuts. The Government has said it will make £20 million available for not for profit agencies each year until 2015 but this is nowhere near enough to plug the gap for the level of specialist advice that legal aid currently provides.

As doors keep closing, people will need to look for help elsewhere. One place they may turn is the office of their local MP.

New research carried out by Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) indicated that a large proportion of MPs’ time is already taken up by dealing with constituents’ legal problems. Over a third of the casework done by MPs and their staff who took part in the study in the preceding six months had involved legal issues and a third of MPs estimated that they spent half to three-quarters of their time on casework for constituents. At the moment, MPs can refer these cases on to law firms and legal advice organisations if specialist, expert advice is required. 71.1% of MPs and caseworkers interviewed by YLAL had referred constituents to a legal adviser in the past six months.

But referring will become harder if the legal aid cuts go through, as both local advice agencies and legal aid providers are hit and face closure. Constituents seem likely to increasingly turn to their MPs for help with legal problems they cannot get elsewhere. The research by YLAL showed that over half (56.2%) of the problems constituents wanted to raise with MPs would no longer get legal aid funding once the Bill is enacted.

This will put MPs in an extremely difficult position. Dealing with an ever greater workload, they will face complex legal issues that they and their staff just do not have the expertise to resolve. In the case of benefits advice, this could allow flawed decisions by benefits agencies to go unchallenged.

This would leave those with ill health and disabled, their carers, and others in need of assistance, without the support that they are entitled to and place huge strain on MPs’ offices.

A previous article for CarerWatch looked at the false economy of the cuts. The Government’s argument that the impact of the changes is justified in order to save money has not taken into account all the long term effects of the plans, like the major difficulties they will cause for MPs as legal problems cannot be picked up by the increasingly strained voluntary sector.

If you are concerned about the impact of the legal aid cuts on you and the person you care for, and on wider society, please take time to write to your MP urging them to vote for amendments to the Bill. Send them YLAL’s report (find a copy here) or Justice for All’s report on the challenges facing law centres and CABx (see here).

A quick link to a letter to your MP is here. Please spread the word now – we only have a few weeks left to save legal aid.

Natalie Sedacca

Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) is a group of lawyers who are committed to practising in those areas of law, both criminal and civil, that have traditionally been publicly funded. YLAL members include students, paralegals, trainee solicitors, pupil barristers and qualified junior lawyers based throughout England and Wales. We believe that the provision of good quality publicly funded legal help is essential to protecting the interests of the vulnerable in society and upholding the rule of law.

Website:  http://www.younglegalaidlawyers.org/

Email: ylalinfo@googlemail.com

Are you worried about cuts to benefits and services which are falling disproportionately on disabled people, their carers and families. Sign Pat’s Petition too and ask all your contacts to do the same. Tell them to share it also.

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4 Responses to “Last stages of the Legal Aid bill – time to stand up for access to justice”

  1. malka Says:

    we have returned to the dark ages for disabled people and their carers, we have gone back to a time when the sick, elderly, disabled community were left to rot in work houses or on the street, or in institutions, typical tory government i guess………..

  2. Beacon Social Care Says:

    – can only encourage to join the protest;
    also I may be able to help carers who need an advocate or case review done; see http://www.beaconsocialcare.org.uk – a nonprofit business, based in the East Midlands; will travel.
    Best wishes,

  3. Rajendra Ganpatram Yagnik Says:

    Will support and do what it takes to defend legal aid and help to the disabled and uphold equality for the needy

  4. malka Says:

    This confirms my earlier thoughts on this whole welfare reform disgrace that the disabled community will be forced to use their MP as a social worker, and maybe this will be the wake up call this tory government need, where else can they go???

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