Government response to legal aid consultation – a false economy that will hurt the most vulnerable
In the biggest shake-up of legal aid since the creation of the system the Government today released its final proposals for reform, alongside a draft legal aid bill. Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) believe these cuts are a false economy and will leave the most vulnerable people without access to justice.
The Government received over 5,000 responses to its original plans. The majority of respondents opposed the reforms. Despite this overwhelming negative response, the Government has decided to press ahead with its original proposals, almost wholly unchanged.
The legal aid bill, if it becomes law, will wipe out legal aid for welfare benefits appeals, immigration applications, child contact and residence disputes, clinical negligence claims, employment disputes, and a substantial number of housing and debt cases. The bill will also take away a person’s ability to choose which solicitor or adviser they instruct, whilst introducing a mandatory telephone advice service (in place of going to see a lawyer in person) for the most vulnerable people in Special Educational Needs cases, discrimination claims and community care work. At the same time the financial eligibility criteria for civil legal aid will become more stringent. This will further increase the gap between those who can afford a lawyer and those who cannot.
In October 2011, the fees paid to many legal aid lawyers will also be reduced meaning that it will not be viable for many firms to continue working in legal aid. There is a real risk that this will create advice deserts, that is areas of the country where individuals are unable to get legal advice unless they can afford to pay privately.
Laura Janes, founder of YLAL says:
"The burden of these changes will fall on the most vulnerable. Legal aid is already only available to the poorest in society who are in the most desperate situations. Many cases brought by these people are only necessary in the first place because of poor decision-making by the state – particularly in benefits and immigration cases. For these people to bear the brunt of the cuts is completely unprincipled and unfair."
"These changes represent a false economy. It is disappointing that Ken Clarke has not listened to the Justice Select Committee who warned the proposals need to be thoroughly reviewed before being implemented; or the independent Committee of Inquiry who just last week confirmed that the proposals would not bring about long-term savings that Ken Clarke hopes; or the 5,000 people who felt so deeply about this issue that they took time to respond to the original consultation. We sincerely hope that the passage of the bill through Parliament will provide more of ‘a listening exercise’ than we have had so far."
- Young Legal Aid Lawyers has nearly 2,000 members including junior lawyers and students who are committed to working in areas of law traditionally funded by legal aid. We share in common a strong belief in social justice and the importance of good quality representation and advice at all levels to those who could otherwise not afford it. For futher details see www.younglegalaidlawyers.org.
- In its response to the Government’s consultation the Justice Select Committee stated:
< em style="mso-bidi-font-style:normal">“It has been put to us that the removal from scope of many areas of social welfare law will lead to significant costs to the public purse as a result of increased burdens on, for example, health and housing services. We are surprised that the Government is proposing to make such changes without assessing their likely impact on spending from the public purse and we call on them to do so before taking a final decision on implementation.”
The Committee’s full report is available at http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/justice-committee/publications/
- The Government, in their impact assessments accompanying the response, states:
“…overall the proposals have the potential to impact a greater proportion of women, BAME people and ill or disabled people” (paragraph 1.7 page 24, Cumulative impact assessment).
- Unequal before the law? The future of legal aid was published on 14 June 2011 by Solicitors Journal and the research company Jures as part of the Justice Gap series. The Commission of Inquiry was organised by YLAL and the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. The report is available to download here and contains testimony and case studies from people who have received legal aid. The report concluded that
“…cutting legal aid is a false economy as the provision of legal aid to solve problems early on creates significant savings further down the line… When coupled with the human cost to the vulnerable and socially excluded of reducing legal aid, the panel finds these increased economic costs are unacceptable.” (pages 59-60)
- The Otterburn Report, released in February 2011 analysed the likely impact on firms if the legal aid proposals went ahead. One of the authors estimated that there would be a 50% reduction in the current supplier base. (http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/