Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Legal aid cuts discriminate

A substantial stack of impact assessments were released with the consultation paper on legal aid in November 2010. The papers starkly set out the full horror of how the government’s proposals for the legal aid system will affect clients. As detailed in the equality impact assessments, women, people with disabilities and black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups will be especially badly hit if the planned changes to the scope of legal aid go ahead.

A total of £350m of the current legal aid budget has been earmarked for cuts, the bulk of which fall on civil legal aid. Family legal aid bears the brunt of these. Divorce, custody disputes over children and financial matters to do with relationship breakdown are all planned to be cut from the scope of legal aid. A large majority, 65 per cent, of family legal aid clients are women and the government admits in its impact assessment that this means they will be disproportionately hit by the planned cuts. BAME clients will also be disproportionately affected, though due to problems with the data the result of the impact assessment on this group is less reliable.

Women also form over 70 per cent of the client group for education law, which is set to be taken out of the scheme. The high proportion could be partly explained by the solicitor recording the sex of the parent instructing him/her to represent a child - perhaps men are less likely to attend appointments with solicitors to discuss their children’s education? The figure could also reflect a higher number of women single parents seeking advice on education matters. Thirty-one per cent of people who obtained advice on education law are BAME clients as opposed to eight per cent in the general population, indicating that the withdrawal of legal aid for education law would have a disproportionately greater impact on this group as well.

People suffering from an illness or disability will be hit hardest by the proposed cuts to advice on debt and benefits. Currently, 30 per cent of clients who have received advice on debt and a staggering 63 per cent of those needing advice on benefits have an illness or disability. Again, there is also a disproportionate impact on women and BAME clients. The proposal to withdraw legal aid from clinical negligence cases also has a disproportionate impact on sick and disabled clients with 30 per cent of cases currently being brought by people from this group.

Overall the government acknowledges that high proportions of the population seeking help from the legal aid system are women, from BAME groups or suffer from an illness or disability. Further impact assessments are promised with the final proposals, but LAG believes the government will struggle to justify the very high difference in impacts on the groups described above. The inescapable conclusion is that if these cuts go ahead they will discriminate against the most disadvantaged and the government will be to blame.

The impact assessment documents are available on the Ministry of Justice website. The consultation on the proposals ends on 14 February.

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