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.

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