According to a story in the Times this morning, and other media sources, the green paper on the future of legal aid will be announced today (15 November) by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). Included in the paper will be plans to cut at least £350m from the budget. It is believed that the paper will detail suggested cuts in police station advice, but with the bulk of the cuts falling on civil work. It would appear family legal aid for work related to divorce is in the government's sights, along with representation in immigration cases and medical negligence claims. It is not clear if any cut will fall on social welfare law (SWL), though this had been suggested as likely by some sources close to the government over the summer.
Social welfare law: what is fair?
At LAG's conference last Friday (12 November), we released the findings from a nationwide opinion poll on the public’s views on legal advice services with an emphasis on the most common types of SWL problem (ie, problems to do with housing, benefits, money/debt and employment law).
It is heartening that at the core of the research findings is a sense of fair play. The British public overwhelmingly believe that even if they are unlikely to use the services themselves, their fellow citizens should have access to state-funded legal advice when things go wrong in their lives. We accept that cuts in legal aid should not be reduced to a popularity contest between different areas of law as we recognise that some types of legal aid work might not enjoy popular public support, but are essential to guarantee civil liberties and to maintain the rule of law. We do believe, though, that the results of the survey send a loud and clear message to the government that publicly funded SWL services matter to the public and therefore such services should not be seen as an easy option for cuts.
These are the key findings from the research:
1. Around two-fifths of the people experiencing a SWL problem went to a legal advice centre such as a Citizens Advice Bureau and around one-fifth went to a solicitor.
2. The lowest social group (DE) were the most reliant on local advice centres for help with these problems and they were the least likely to use internet and telephone services or to be able to travel far to access advice.
3. A large majority of people, while they might not use advice centres, viewed them as the appropriate place to go for advice on these types of problems.
4. People from the lowest social group were twice as likely as other groups to experience problems with money such as debts and benefits. Problems with employment and housing were the most evenly distributed across all social groups.
Respondents were asked two questions regarding their opinions on what should be a priority for government funding for legal advice. The key findings were as follows:
1. Roughly eight out of ten people (84 per cent) believed that advice on civil law should be either free to everyone or to those on below average earnings. Only one in ten believe that such services should be available only to people on benefits.
2. Support for legal services paid for by the state is very consistent across social classes.
3. Respondents believed that the top priorities for funding legal advice were child protection (70 per cent) and housing (67 per cent). Employment (53 per cent) was the third priority. Benefits and debt advice were seen as the next priorities (36 per cent each) and divorce and relationship breakdown was the lowest priority (17 per cent).
4. There was a remarkable degree of unanimity between social classes about what the priorities should be for advice.
5. While state funding for divorce-related work has least public support, LAG concluded that if there was domestic violence involved, such cases might have enjoyed higher levels of support.
A full copy of the report Social welfare law: what is fair? is available from our website. LAG intends to follow up the research and hopes to publish further reports on the public’s views on civil law legal services as well as developing a set of policy proposals based on the research.
Image: Legal Action Group