Thursday, 16 December 2010

Cuts debate in House of Commons

At a well attended adjournment debate in the House of Commons last Tuesday (14 December) Karen Buck MP expressed her fears about the impact of the government’s proposed legal aid cuts: 'People with disabilities are likely to be disproportionately affected. For example, 63 per cent of legally aided clients in the sphere of welfare benefits assistance are disabled.'

Buck, who is the Labour MP for Westminster North and the former chairperson of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid, initiated the debate. Adjournment debates give MPs the opportunity to discuss important issues outside the normal business of parliament. In the debate Buck argued that the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux is worried that if legal aid for social welfare law goes, alternative sources of advice are not available for most clients.

Dr Julian Lewis, the Conservative MP for New Forest East, told his fellow MPs that his local Citizens Advice Bureau was afraid that cutbacks would lead to two part-time staff losing their jobs: 'It (the bureau) is wondering where its most vulnerable clients will go if that service is cut back in parallel with cutbacks in legal aid.' Buck welcomed his remarks and also quoted from case studies supplied to her by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, including that of a father fearful that he will lose contact with his daughter as his former partner intends to move to New Zealand. 'Even in cases in which domestic violence is not an issue, without legal aid there are real dangers that individuals, particularly those who have difficulty in being sufficiently articulate or confident to navigate the courts system, will lose access to children,' said Buck.

Flintshire Citizens Advice Bureau is in danger of losing £170,000 which pays for the equivalent of five posts, according to Mark Tami, the Labour MP for Alyn and Deeside. He said the bureau 'deals with some of the most vulnerable people in our society, who are often the same people who end up coming to see Members of Parliament. It is a worry that cuts will devastate the area'. Stephen Lloyd, the Liberal Democrat MP for Eastbourne, believes advice charities in his constituency could lose funding of around £230,000-£250,000 per year which he said they use 'to support more than 1,500 of the town's most vulnerable residents with complex debt, benefit and housing problems'. He also fears that cuts in legal aid will reduce the number of solicitors firms in his constituency from the current nine to only two, meaning some of his constituents could face a 'round trip in excess of 50 miles' to get help.

Labour’s shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter spoke in the debate. He said that according to the government's own impact assessment of the proposed cuts, they would mean a 92 per cent cut in legal aid funding for the voluntary sector. Slaughter also said that the government is 'living in cloud cuckoo land' if it believes that people would be able to prepare their own appeals against decisions to turn them down for benefits: 'Some 40 per cent of cases going to incapacity benefit appeals are successful with no representation and 67 per cent are successful with representation.' He paid tribute to the former legal aid minister Lord Bach, arguing that while in office he had defended social welfare law in the legal aid system and that if Labour had remained in government it would have continued to protect it.

The Solicitor-General, Edward Garnier, replied to those at the debate for the government as the minister responsible for legal aid, Jonathan Djanogly, was unavailable to do so. Garnier acknowledged that 'in all our constituencies we find areas where there is a huge need for legal representation'. He stressed that while a constituency like his (Harborough) appears prosperous there is still a need for social welfare law advice and that there is the opportunity to express views about the proposals in what 'is a deliberately lengthy consultation process'. Garnier argued that 'to be in government is to have to make decisions and choices. The main factor that we have to address at the moment is the economic difficulties that the national budget faces'.

LAG is urging anyone concerned about the cuts in legal aid to join the Justice for All campaign (see previous blog). Please also write to your MPs and join the lobby of parliament planned for 12 January.

Picture- Justice for All Christmas card sent to MPs.

Friday, 10 December 2010

The end of the line for CLAS

One of the casualties of the government’s proposals on legal aid published last month will be the policy of establishing jointly funded advice services with local government. The last government, in conjunction with the Legal Services Commission (LSC), had aimed to establish dozens of such services, but since April 2007 only nine have got off the ground. Now called community legal advice services (CLAS), the recently opened one in Manchester has caused huge controversy as the two Law Centres in the city lost out to a bid led by the local Citizens Advice Bureau. As reported in previous blogs these Law Centres are now under threat of closure.

LAG has always been sceptical about the benefits of the CLAS policy in areas such as Manchester, which already had well established not-for-profit sector services and solicitors firms. The policy always looked like a case of change for change's sake with little to gain for the public. With the publication of the green paper on legal aid, the CLAS initiative now resembles the rearrangement of the deck chairs on the civil legal aid Titanic.

Large cuts in the scope of legal aid are planned to be introduced in October 2012. As a result, LAG understands that the government intends to pull the plug on those CLAS which have already been established. LAG believes those such as Leicester and Gateshead which have contracts due to run out before October 2012 should at least have their contracts extended to ensure they are in line with the rest of the country if the planned cuts in scope go ahead. Other CLAS, such as Manchester, which have contracts due to end after October 2012 present a different problem.

The government might choose to give notice to those CLAS with contracts set to end after the scope changes. This would lead to much bitterness among the local councils which entered the contracts with the LSC and government in good faith. The alternative would be to let the contracts run to their end date, which in the case of Manchester would be a full year after the planned withdrawal of legal aid for benefits, employment and other areas of civil law. Not much help to the Law Centres forced to close, but at least the residents of Manchester could console themselves with the thought, for a short while at least, that they would be receiving legal aid services which no-one else in the country was entitled to!

Image: South Manchester Law Centre

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Justice for All

In a speech today (3 December), Steve Hynes, LAG's director, spoke to the National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers (NAWRA) of the 'crisis engulfing the civil legal advice world'. He believes that the proposed cuts to legal aid for housing, debt, welfare benefits, immigration and employment law cases will hit not for profit (NFP) agencies and their clients hard. NAWRA has many advisers in its membership who are employed in local government and the NFP sector. LAG believes that they need to tell ministers that local government cannot be expected to pick up the pieces if the government chooses to walk away from funding social welfare law advice and urges them to encourage the organisations they represent to respond to the government's consultation on legal aid.

LAG has joined with other organisations, including the trade union Unite, Citizens Advice and the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, to form the Justice for All campaign. The campaign will be officially launched in January. The Justice for All website is already up and running and LAG is encouraging organisations to sign up to support the campaign.

Read the full speech to NAWRA on LAG's website.