has responded strongly to the Government’s Green Paper outlining its future plans for legal aid in England and Wales published on 15th November 2010.
Savage cuts will deny or delay justice
The proposed cuts are deep and far ranging. Legal aid will no longer be available for a vast array of cases. People will no longer be able to use legal aid to access legal advice and representation on key areas of law including welfare benefits, debt, education or employment. Advice on housing, immigration and family law will be restricted to extreme situations. Where areas of law remain in scope the new financial eligibility criteria will mean that only the very poorest in society will be able to receive legal aid.
Selling out on quality and face to face advice
Although the proposals for the telephone gateway system are set out in just three of the 148 pages of the consultation, the introduction of a gateway for all civil legal aid work would totally transform the provision of legal aid services.
It is quite possible that the proposal could include entirely replacing first-tier advice work (Legal Help) with a mandatory telephone service. This would not only have potentially drastic implications for clients who may not be able to communicate effectively by telephone or whose problems may not be spotted by a junior telephone operator but also for firms who may lose their current client base and their expertise in undertaking the early stages of work.
At the same time, cuts to the remuneration of legal aid lawyers combined with no quality requirements imposed by central Government will mean that if businesses are to survive they may be compelled to compromise on quality. Poor quality representation and advice can sometimes be worse than useless. Without sustainable, good quality legal aid services there will be no infrastructure to train new generations of quality legal aid lawyers, thereby risking the stability and sustainability of the legal aid scheme.
The impact assessments carried out by the Government show that the cuts will cause great harm not only to particular disadvantaged groups but also to the very fabric of our society. The impact assessments acknowledge the potential for an increase in crime and higher spending costs, as well as reduced social cohesion and reduced business and economic efficiency.
Most disadvantaged hardest hit
The impact assessments also confirm that the proposals are likely to disproportionately affect women, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups and disabled people. That means if you are from a BAME group, if you are a woman or if you are disabled then you will have less chance of being able to resolve your legal problem. The Government states that this is justified in the name of cutting the deficit. We believe that this attitude is fundamentally wrong. Irrespective of the fiscal context there is no justification for such discriminatory treatment in the 21st century.
No more acceptable than saying we can’t afford democracy
YLAL believes that justice should not be sold, delayed or denied (Magna Carta, Chapter 40). We fear that, if implemented, the proposals will mean that justice will become a commodity for those with means and that there will be so many hurdles to access to justice that justice will either be severely delayed or denied altogether. It is no more acceptable to dispense with access to justice in the name of austerity then it would be to say that we can no longer afford democracy.