Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Justice Committee slams government’s legal aid plans

In a report published today, the Justice Committee is critical of the government’s plans for the reform of legal aid. The committee is concerned that 'vulnerable groups of people will be disproportionately hit by the changes'. The report stops short of calling on the government to abandon the planned cuts in legal aid. It instead calls on the government 'to look again' at other ways in which cash can be saved and to better evaluate the impact of the cuts before implementing them.

LAG gave evidence to the committee detailing the likely consequences of the proposed cuts, which will see areas of work such as advice on family, housing and debt problems severely cut back. Help with some legal problems such as employment and education will be cut completely. LAG fears that the number of providers will be cut from just over 2,000 to less than 900, which would create advice deserts, even in the areas of work which the government proposes to keep in scope, such as domestic violence and child protection cases. The committee accepted that the government needs to undertake a more thorough evaluation of the impact of these cuts in the provision of legal aid services across the country.

The definition of domestic violence is recognised by the committee as an important issue. It calls on the government to widen this definition to include cases of non-physical abuse and to await the results of the Family Justice Review Panel's work before finalising any changes to the family legal aid system.

In another recommendation supported by LAG, the committee asks the government to consider more support to help organisations such as Citizens Advice Bureaux, Law Centres and other advice centres to deal with the impact of both legal aid and other cuts. The committee heard evidence from Nick Hurd, the minister for civil society, on the government’s Transition Fund for voluntary organisations and calls on the government to consider a second round of this funding to help these organisations cope with the cuts.

Part of the committee’s report which is most critical of the government concerns its failure to consider the impact of the withdrawal of services in social welfare law. It accepted the evidence from organisations such as Citizens Advice, which argued that the provision of advice at an early stage resolves problems before they become critical and cost the state more to resolve. The committee requests that the government evaluate the impact of early advice on other government departments before going ahead with the proposed cuts.

Another welcome recommendation is that departments of state, such as the Department for Work and Pensions, are given financial penalties if they fail to get their decisions right first time. LAG believes that the introduction of such a 'polluter pays' policy could be used to fund legal services and would lead to many more decisions being made correctly first time round, which is what the public wants.

*An article on LAG’s response to the Justice Committee report will be included in May’s Legal Action magazine.

Picture (LAG): Sir Alan Beith, chairman of the Justice Committee.

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