Sir Alan Beith, chairperson of the Justice Select Committee spoke at the meeting, along with clients who had used legal aid services. Sir Alan said: 'We have to ensure there is support available for people going to tribunals', and called for organisations to put in submissions to the Justice Select Committee’s inquiry on the impact of the proposed changes to legal aid. Sir Alan, who is a Liberal Democrat MP, told the meeting that, 'while the government is not going to sign a blank cheque for legal aid in the future, support must be given to people most in need'.
The meeting heard from a former legal aid client, Deborah. In an emotional speech she told the meeting that she and her daughter had been victims of domestic violence. They had been living in a women’s refuge for a year, but after receiving advice from the housing charity Shelter they were rehoused. They used Shelter’s legal service again when they experienced harassment from their neighbours. Deborah told the meeting that 'without Shelter and legal aid both my daughter and I would not be where we are today, in a good home'.
Many of the solicitors and advice services representatives attending the event took the opportunity to meet their MPs and raise their concerns about the impact of the proposed cuts to legal aid and in other funding for advice services. Throughout yesterday afternoon LAG observed a steady stream of representatives from solicitors' firms, Law Centres, Citizens Advice Bureaux and other advice centres making their way to the central lobby in Westminster to meet their MPs.
Yvonne Fovargue MP hosted the launch meeting. She is the incoming chairperson of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid and a former Citizens Advice Bureau manager. The meeting also heard impromptu speeches from shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan MP and shadow justice minister Andrew Slaughter MP. Sadiq Khan said that 'a justice system which is accessible to all is one of the pillars of a civilised society'. He told the meeting that if Labour had been re-elected to government it would have been forced to make cuts to legal aid but it would not have made them to social welfare law as early advice in such cases 'saves money in the long term'.
Written submissions to the Justice Committee inquiry have to be submitted by 24 January. The committee will be hearing evidence in February and is particularly interested to hear about the impact of the proposed changes on the number and quality of practitioners in all areas of law, who offer services funded by legal aid. More details are available on the committee's website.
Image (Legal Action Group): Sir Alan Beith speaking at the Justice for All launch with former legal aid client Deborah