29 Feb 2012

Bishop of Gloucester joins calls to stop legal aid cuts

It was good to see this evening an online article by the Bish of Gloucester highlighting the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill which is soon to be debated at Report Stage in the House of Lords, of which he is a member. He notes around 3,000 people in Gloucester will be left with no way of enforcing their rights when faced with employment, welfare benefits, housing, debt or immigration problems. See here.
Rachel Taylor of Young Legal Aid Lawyers has produced a very useful summary of the issues. I tried to find it online but couldn't so have copied it below - I hope Rachel wont mind as it arrived in my email box with a message to try and get more people to understand the importance of this issue. Last November I emailed Neil Carmichael but was not so happy with the response. Indeed you will find on this blog a number of posts on this issue - see for example January 2011 blog here and Greens emergency motion last May here.

Cutting Legal Aid: Denying Access to Advice

Times are tough at the moment, there’s no hiding from it. As cuts to public funding combine with a weak economy, many of us are beginning to feel the impact of the government’s ‘austerity measures.’ This year’s Carers Rights Day[1] (held on 2 December 2011), with its theme of ‘Money Matters’ could therefore not have been better timed; with its focus on providing carers with advice about claiming benefits and accessing support – advice that many will no doubt have found invaluable. 

Less well timed then (and indeed, less well thought through) are the government’s  planned cuts to legal aid; the public funding that allows those of lower financial means to access legal advice and representation for certain areas of law. Legislation[2] is currently before Parliament that, in its current form, looks set to effectively halve the current provision of legal aid. If these proposals become law they would both lower the means test (so that, for example, those receiving means-tested benefits such as income-based employment and support allowance, income-based jobseeker’s allowance or income support will no longer automatically qualify on means but will have any capital that they may have taken into account too) and remove some areas of law entirely from the scope of the legal aid system.

One such area is welfare benefits advice, where all legal aid funding will be cut. This means that it will no longer be possible for people to access advice about their eligibility for a certain benefit, or about how they may be able to appeal a decision that has been made against them. This raises serious concerns, particularly when considering the following factors:

1.    Securing the right benefits is of critical importance for those in receipt

This is rather an obvious point, but one that should be emphasized nonetheless: establishing eligibility for a particular benefit will often provide someone with support that they critically need. This is something that is seen time and time again in practice, and was illustrated through the case study of Souleikha Mouhamed in the Commission of Inquiry into Legal Aid[3], who described the legal advice that she obtained through legal aid to resolve her benefit, housing and immigrations problems as “a lifeline”.

This lifeline will be cut if the government’s proposals are enacted in their current form.  

2.    The people who require this advice are often amongst the most vulnerable in society

This was explicitly recognized in the Government’s Impact Assessment[4]. For example, although 58%[5] of the people who receive legal aid for welfare benefits advice are disabled, the Government remains intent on proceeding with the cut, irrespective of their clear discriminatory impact.

3.             The system is complex and riddled with mistakes

When justifying the cuts, the Government has repeatedly stated that advice is unnecessary as the system is a simple one that people can negotiate for themselves. This assumption gives serious cause for concern, especially when considering that those who are entitled to benefits will often be vulnerable.

It is recognised that the government may have more of a point if the administration of welfare benefits was accurate and efficient (or indeed, either of these). But it is not, as was revealed in research[6] recently conducted by SCOPE. Particularly significant is that in 2009-2010 88%[7] of those who obtained legally aided advice about welfare benefits secured a positive outcome.

Indeed, Chis Grayling, the Minister for Employment, has conceded[8] that “There will always be decisions that we get wrong the first time around, however hard we try to perfect the system”. But without legal aid, people will not be able to access legal advice about how these ‘inevitable’ mistakes can be remedied.

It should not be forgotten that ensuring people are given accurate advice itself makes the system more efficient, as, for example, people are advised against appealing a decision when there is no merit in doing so. This is particularly relevant in light of the concerns that have been raised by Judges[9] about the burden that the proposals will have upon an already over-worked tribunal system.

4.    The changes come at a time when the benefits system is undergoing a massive overhaul

These proposals are particularly alarming as they come at a time when reforms to the welfare system[10] will mean that, for instance:

    1. People will be migrated from incapacity benefit to Employment and Support Allowance or job-seeker’s allowance by 2013, and then moved onto Universal Credit by 2017; and
    2. Disability and Living Allowance (‘DLA’) will be replaced by a ‘Personal Independence Payment by 2013/4, which will require the reassessment of 3.2 million people currently in receipt of DLA

The changes are likely to increase both the need for accurate advice and the risk of inaccurate decisions being made, again demonstrating the importance of accessing accurate advice.

5.   Alternative advice sources are also being cut

The Government has repeatedly asserted that other agencies will be able to provide the advice previously delivered through solicitors firms and law centres. This is unrealistic but particularly so when the cuts come at a time that funding from other sources is also being cut. 

It is important to recognize that welfare benefits is only one of a number of areas[11] being removed from scope. In addition, the changes to the means tests (as mentioned above) will also deprive people of access to, for example, advice and assistance about education issues or matters regarding social services.

It is imperative to ensure that these proposals do not take effect. The bill is currently in the committee stage in the House of Lords (which will continue through the early months of 2012), and it is therefore not too late to alert the peers to the importance of this issue, and how damaging these cuts could be.

An e-petition has been lodged on the Government’s website, requiring the Government to ‘Stop and review the cuts to benefits and services which are falling disproportionately on disabled people, their carers and families’. Click here[12] to sign the petition.

Scope are also looking for stories about disabled people who secured the right benefits after receiving advice funded through legal aid, and can be contacted at christina.sarb@scope.org.uk.

To access information on how else to take action against the cuts see Save Legal Aid[13].

Rachel Taylor is a member of Young Legal Aid Lawyers

[1] http://www.carersuk.org/
[2] http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/2010-2012/0205/12205.i-v.html
[3] http://www.jures.co.uk/whitepapers/jzqXCQ6W_SJ_Justice%20Gap%20June%202011_Unequal%20before%20the%20law.pdf
[4] http://www.justice.gov.uk/downloads/consultations/cumulative-consulation-response-ia.pdf
[5] http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmpublic/legalaid/memo/la46a.pdf
[6] http://www.scope.org.uk/sites/default/files/Scope_Legal_aid_report.pdf
[7] http://www.legalservices.gov.uk/docs/archive/Statistical_information_pack_09-10.pdf
[8] http://www.theyworkforyou.com/pbc/2010-11/Welfare_Reform_Bill/22-0_2011-05-17a.6.0
[9] http://www.justice.gov.uk/ajtc/docs/Legal_Aid_Response.pdf
[10] http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2010-11/welfarereform.html
[11] http://www.savelegalaid.co.uk/underthreat.html
[12] http://carerwatch.com/reform
[13] http://www.savelegalaid/takeaction

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