The government is pressing ahead with plans to cut legal aid that will result in the closure of law centres across the UK. With unemployment, debt and radical changes to the benefits system souring the public mood, increasing numbers of people are finding themselves in situations where they need legal advice, and need it for free.
Having inflicted defeats on the government over welfare reform, the Lords look up for a fight over this issue. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill recently passed through the committee stage in the Lords where it was met with hostility on both sides. The bill now faces the report stage for further line-by-line scrutiny and detailed consideration of the proposed changes. Peers have warned that if the planned £350 million cuts are implemented law centres will close, leaving many thousands of the poor and vulnerable marginalised and without access to legal help. The Shadow Justice minister Lord Bach believes that over half of all Citizens Advice Bureaus would be forced to shut permanently, whilst the Law Centre Federation is bracing itself for the loss of around 18 of their 56 centres.
For those centres that do survive, these cuts, combined with the recent decimation of local authority funding, will remove legal aid for medical negligence, divorce, employment and welfare cases, whilst also hitting areas such as debt and housing hard. The Lords are battling to include an amendment to keep legal aid for welfare cases. There is real strength of feeling on this subject. And here's why:
Legal Aid has been under great strain, it won't be able to withstand the purse strings being drawn even more tightly. As it is, law centres operate on an incredibly tight budget. A fixed fee of £150 is charged for meritorious cases, that is, those cases that hinge on complex legal issues, and in which an advisor must do far more than simple form filling. Appointments must be booked, and slots are limited. Progress can be slow - requiring a frustrating number of phone calls (the CAB national helpline charges 44 pence per minute from a mobile - an especially unwelcome addition for those with debt problems).
Under the proposed changes, the government expects more people to deal with problems themselves, via a centralised telephone line or the Internet. Just imagine how difficult this might be for someone with learning disabilities, who really needs to deal with someone face-to-face from the start. Or someone who cannot afford a telephone or the Internet, and therefore would previously have relied on walking to their local law centre. These people will still exist, but will have nowhere to turn.
Without proper access to legal aid, many people, discouraged and afraid - for the system is difficult and daunting even to those with advice and representations - may choose to allow actionable claims to go unheard and fundamental rights to go without enforcement. Disabled people will not get the support they need - at great cost to them and to friends, family, carers, communities and the taxpayer further down the line. In any event, vulnerable people are not wildly rushing to court to litigate. In fact they are slow to do so and it is often the last thing they want to do. And what's more, this situation is only made worse by a lack of awareness: too many people do not understand that the legal profession exists, in all its bewigged pomp and ceremony, to protect fairness for everyone.
Law centres have been prominent in the UK for over 40 years, and previous governments have understood and accepted the cost of publicly funded legal services if principles of fairness and access to justice are to be adhered to at all levels of society. These governments recognised that vulnerable people need accessible, early and high-quality advice to prevent their problems spiralling out of control. Without the help they need, these people will, at best, muddle through issues themselves; at worst, they will sit on problems, as their lives descend into chaos.
This isn't a risk worth taking, especially as legal aid constitutes just 0.04% of the budget, which is the cost of running the NHS for just two weeks. According to a recent King's College London report, these cuts will simply shift the burden onto other parts of the public purse - wiping out almost 60% of the claimed savings. Scrapping legal aid for social welfare law would bring an extra cost of £35.2 million against savings of £58 million. Essentially this means that people with troubled lives will be taking the hit for a fairly insignificant saving for the rest of us.
So without a convincing economic rationale, what is the real reason for change? Perhaps it's because the legal profession is, of course, an easy money-saving target, given the common misconception that they are all 'fat cats', purring atop mountainous fees. Well, hardly. Law centres are run by trained advisors, qualified lawyers and volunteers offering their time and services for modest or no recompense.
Perhaps it's about fairness? Yes, the system needs to be fair. And that means fairness for everyone. Fair to the vulnerable, fair to defendants, fair to practitioners, and fair to the taxpayer too. But this isn't a money-saving exercise. This is an attack on the welfare state.