Monday, 28 February 2011

Advice service cuts

Manchester City Council has announced the complete closure of its in-house advice service, Manchester Advice, as part of £40m in cuts to its adult services department.

Manchester Advice was one of the first such council advice services established in the country. Around 100 staff will be made redundant and LAG understands that they are currently being asked to consider taking voluntary redundancy. A total of £1.68m will be saved if the service closes.

Manchester Advice offers free, confidential and independent advice on benefits, housing, debt, and consumer issues. Last year it assisted 80,000 Manchester residents and brought them around £30m in income from entitlements and savings. A letter, seen by LAG, sent to Manchester City councillors by a campaign group called Access2Advice argues that while the group is 'reconciled to share the pain over cuts', the complete closure of Manchester Advice is 'a scorched-earth policy which will bring devastating effects for many tens of thousands of vulnerable Manchester residents'.

The council’s paper detailing its budget proposals argues that the services in the city provided by the Community Legal Advice Service (CLAS) will provide an alternative to the directly run council service. The CLAS was established last year and is led by Manchester Citizens Advice Bureau Service. It is funded by the council and the Legal Services Commission. However, if the government’s planned legal aid cuts go ahead the CLAS would lose much of its income from legal aid next year. This would leave Manchester residents without advice on benefits, debt and other civil legal issues. Clearly a rethink of the council's strategy for advice is needed as the plan to close Manchester Advice could not have envisaged that legal aid funding for advice would be cut.

Birmingham Citizens Advice Bureau Service seems to have avoided a funding crisis which could have resulted in the immediate closure of its five open-door services in the city. The city council has withdrawn its £600,000 grant to the bureaux. However, after meeting with councillors, the Citizens Advice Bureau Service withdrew its threat to immediately close its five offices in the city after being given assurances regarding a new council grant pot for advice services. LAG understands that around £300,000 will be made available by the council to fund such services in the city later this year, but this will still mean a large cut for the bureaux.

LAG is calling on the government to conduct an urgent review of legal advice services in social welfare law jointly with the not for profit legal advice sector. Local government as a whole has to find 28 per cent in cuts and it is clear that advice services, as they are mainly non-statutory, are in the firing line. Through a combination of council and legal aid cuts we believe many areas like Manchester and Birmingham will lose the advice centres which provide a lifeline for thousands of people with housing, benefits and other common civil legal problems.

Image: South Manchester Law Centre. The Law Centre now provides a much reduced service after losing most of its funding from the city council last year.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Reprieve for debt advice

The government announced on Saturday (12 February) that it has found £27 million to continue funding face-to-face debt advice in Citizens Advice Bureaux and other charitable advice centres. The cash will pay for another year of the services, which were under threat of closure due to the end of the Financial Inclusion Fund, which had been confirmed three weeks ago.

Announcing the new funding, the Secretary of State for Business Vince Cable said: 'It's vitally important that everyone has access to free debt advice, and I am pleased to announce that the Department for Business will provide the £27 million necessary to maintain the programme of face-to-face debt advice.'

Vince Cable deserves praise for his role in securing this reprieve for debt advice. He is a strong supporter of Citizens Advice Bureaux and was named Citizens Advice Parliamentarian of the Year in 2008. It would have been an embarrassment for him if 500 debt advisers plus support staff funded by his department had been made redundant on his watch.

LAG welcomes this news, but points out that next year legal aid funding for debt advice in many cases will end. This has bought the coalition some respite, but it really needs to consider an integrated strategy for debt advice across government. We would also ask is it not time that the credit industry, especially banks, started paying for debt advice?

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Legal aid cuts and the Opposition

In an exclusive interview with LAG, Lord Bach, the shadow legal aid minister, discussed Labour’s response to the government’s consultation on the reform of legal aid which ends today (14 February).

Lord Bach, the former legal aid minister, is touchy about criticism that Labour was slow to respond to the government’s proposals. When the consultation on the cuts was announced, Jonathan Freedland, writing in the Guardian, reflected the views of many when he said that Labour should argue that the timing and scale of the cuts are wrong, instead of 'quibbling about the details'. In response to this, Lord Bach says: 'It would have been hypocritical of Labour to say we would not cut anything. If we had we would have been rightly criticised.' He acknowledges that 'Labour got some things wrong in government and we will use our time in opposition to rethink the legal aid system and where it should go'.

Regarding the cuts, Lord Bach believes, rather like Jonathan Freedland, that the coalition government is planning to cut 'too deep and too quickly'. Labour says the government should implement the plans which Lord Bach helped to develop while in government to reduce the number of criminal legal aid firms in the market, increasing the volume of work for those remaining: 'If they did this we believe that £200m could be saved within the spending review period, with no damage done to access to justice. Indeed, we probably would not have waited until 2013 to find these savings.'

Lord Bach is robust in setting out Labour’s position on the areas of civil law known as social welfare law (benefits, debt, housing, employment and education): 'I don’t think ministers get it. They think only in terms of court work and nothing else. It must continually be repeated that if they cut early advice in these areas of law it will be the very vulnerable that will suffer and it will lead to the exact opposite of what they want. More problems will be brought to court.' Labour, he says, is also opposed to the proposed cut of ten per cent in civil fees which will hit 'social welfare lawyers who work for little reward'. He cannot resist making a party political point: 'In opposition, the Liberal Democrats argued for more funding for legal aid and were great supporters of social welfare law and local advice centres. What happened?'

LAG reminded Lord Bach that while in office he often hinted that the Labour government would have to cut back on legal aid for divorce and custody cases. He admits that this was considered: 'I find it difficult to justify legal aid for divorce. Also, privately, family lawyers have told me they do not believe it is the best use of public funds to fight custody battles in court over children.' He says that Labour agrees with the current government that there should be more use of mediation in family cases as this is 'underused in our system'. LAG put it to him that the difficulty of cutting legal aid for family cases is that some women experiencing domestic violence would be denied help in dealing with the financial and other aspects of a relationship break-up. Lord Bach concedes that the government 'will have to look very carefully at the definition of domestic violence. These are incredibly sensitive cases and the definition has to be wider than just physical violence'.

When asked if he believes that the cuts will go through, Lord Bach offers some hope: 'Many backbench MPs are beginning to get it. They know more people will be coming to their constituency surgeries for help and they will have less places to refer them to if advice centres and law firms are forced to close.' He urges people concerned about the proposed cuts to talk to their MPs, particularly Conservative and Liberal Democrat backbenchers. A good piece of advice, LAG would suggest.

It is welcome that the Opposition is now making the right noises about civil legal aid, but it has no power to do anything. We have to concentrate our efforts on those that do, before it is too late.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Civil justice in jeopardy

LAG’s director, Steve Hynes, is giving evidence tomorrow (8 February) to the House of Commons Justice Committee’s inquiry into access to justice. In a paper prepared for the committee also published today, LAG has produced figures which chart the decline in the number of legal aid providers over recent years and warns that if the planned cuts in legal aid go ahead around 60 per cent of the population could be excluded from access to legal aid services.

A decade ago most high streets in the larger towns and urban population centres could boast at least one legal aid provider, but since then numbers have fallen from over 10,000 providers to less than 25 per cent of that number today. The government is planning to stop paying for most family law cases involving divorce and disputes over the custody of children. It also wishes to cut areas of law such as employment and benefits from the scheme. LAG estimates that, due to these cuts, there could be fewer than 900 legal aid providers in the future. This would leave people in large areas of the country unable to get help with legal problems in cases involving domestic violence, as well as child protection, even though these areas of work would continue to be funded by the legal aid scheme.

In an attempt to justify the proposed cuts the government is trying to paint a picture of a system which has grown far beyond its original remit. This is deeply misleading. Lord Rushcliffe, the barrister and former Conservative MP, drafted the original report which led to the establishment of the legal aid system 60 years ago. Rushcliffe wanted legal aid to help people of 'small or moderate means' who needed assistance with legal matters in which a lawyer would normally be needed. The government’s proposed cuts for civil legal aid are putting this vision in jeopardy.

Through a combination of funding from legal aid and other sources, especially local government, a network of both solicitors' firms and charitable services, such as Citizens Advice Bureaux, has grown up across the country since Rushcliffe’s report. These services try to cope with the demand for advice on the increasingly complex legal issues which affect people's lives. They are at risk of closing in large numbers due to a combination of the cuts in legal aid and other funding. For example, last week, we learnt that the Citizens Advice Bureau in Birmingham will close unless the local council rethinks its decision to end its £600,000 per year grant to the service. Also, it has emerged that the government will not be renewing its funding for debt advice services. Known as the Financial Inclusion Fund, this cash pays for around 500 money advisers in advice centres across the country. This cut will spell the end for a service desperately needed by people suffering from the impact of the recession.

LAG is asking the Justice Committee to support our call for a commission of enquiry to be established to look at the availability, quality and funding of civil law services. We believe these services, which provide help on housing, debt, benefits, employment, as well as other areas of civil law, are in danger of being lost overnight unless the government is prepared to think strategically, rather than rushing to make cuts with no heed to the consequences.