Nowhere else to turn

YLAL has published a follow up study assessing the impact of legal aid cuts on MPs ability to assist their constituents. Details set out below. The full report , “Nowhere else to turn: one year on”, can be downloaded here.

In 2011, Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) conducted a survey of 45 MPs and caseworkers across England and Wales. The aim was to examine the possible impact of proposals in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) bill on MPs’ ability to help their constituents with legal problems. The results of the survey were published in March 2012 in our report, “Nowhere else to turn: The impact of legal aid cuts on MPs’ ability to help their constituents”.

The findings of the report were that:

  • MPs are frequently the last resort for constituents with legal problems.
  • MPs devote significant time and resources to helping their constituents.
  • MPs lack the expertise and resources to deal with complex legal problems.
  • MPs are reliant on free local sources of legal advice.
  • Free local sources of legal advice are becoming increasingly scarce.
  • The issues which constituents take to MPs correspond with cuts to the scope of legal aid; the most common legal issues that constituents needed help with were benefits, asylum/immigration and housing (not including homelessness).

On 4 December 2012, the Low Commission on the Future of Advice and Legal Support was launched. The objective of the Commission, chaired by Lord Colin Low, was to develop a strategy for access to advice and support on social welfare law in England and Wales. To assist the work of the Commission, YLAL was asked to carry out a follow up study to assess the impact on MPs following the coming into force of the LASPO Act 2012 on 1 April 2013.

To do this, we returned to those MPs who had taken part in the original survey and asked them to answer a series of five supplementary questions using an online survey tool. Twenty-nine of the original MPs and caseworkers agreed to take part in this follow-up survey. The results have now been published in a follow up report, “Nowhere else to turn: one year on”.

As with the original survey, the report is not intended to provide an authoritative statement of the impact of the legal aid cuts. Rather, it is a “snapshot”, giving an indicator of the current trends and difficulties facing MPs and their constituents in the context of ongoing cuts to legal aid. The findings that emerged from the report are as follows:

(i) There has been a growth in demand for advice in areas affected by LASPO.

Eighty six per cent of respondents reported an increase in demand for advice since 1 April  2013. The areas for which demand had increased are areas which are no longer within scope of legal aid, or where scope has been restricted. This reflects the conclusion reached in our 2012 report; that constituents may raise more issues with their MP when they are not able to seek redress via the provision of legally aided advice. While some respondents stated that it was too early to notice the impact of LASPO, other respondents were already seeing significant trends in the issues being raised by their constituents. This increase in demand for advice and assistance, particularly in certain areas, has placed an increased burden on MPs and their caseworkers.

(ii) There are increased difficulties in referring constituents to local advice providers.

Over 50% of respondents indicated that they had experienced difficulties in locating advice services to which they could refer constituents since our 2011 research. Respondents noted an increase in waiting times at Citizens Advice Bureaux (CABx), specifically for Welfare Benefits and Debt advice. Overall, respondents reported reduced levels of assistance at CABx, law centres, and other advice services. These service providers were described as overstretched with high workloads and scaled down resources and funding; some advice centres have closed down as a result. Respondents reported that they are running out of options for constituents who are unable to pay privately for legal advice.

(iii) MPs are concerned about the future.

A significant proportion of respondents expressed concern about the changes to legal aid and how they might affect their constituents and the work of MPs and caseworkers in the future.