Saturday, 28 May 2011

Day of action

A day of action against the cuts in legal aid and advice services has been called for this Friday (3 June) by Justice for All. Marches and other events have been planned across the country by campaigners opposed to the government's proposed cuts in legal aid, which LAG estimates will leave over 650,000 people a year without advice. Justice for All also wants to highlight the impact of cuts in local government support for advice services.

In Birmingham, an area which will be badly hit by both the legal aid cuts and reductions in grants to advice agencies from the local council, a march has been organised which will leave the law courts on Corporation Street at 12 noon. Other marches and rallies will take place in Sheffield, Eastbourne, Coventry and London. High street stalls are planned in some areas such as Liverpool and Tunbridge Wells. Many Justice for All supporters are holding meetings with their local MPs to brief them on the impact of the cuts.

A bill containing the government's proposals for legal aid is expected to be published next week. The government is proposing to remove large areas of work currently covered by the legal aid scheme such as employment, divorce, benefits and education law. Most of the proposed cuts will fall on civil legal aid and according to the government's own impact assessment it will be women, people with disabilities, as well as black and minority ethnic groups which will be most badly hit.

Details of the events taking place on Friday are available on the Justice for All website. LAG would urge anyone concerned about access to justice to support one of the events. We would also ask you to contact your MP to request that s/he does not support the bill when it is before parliament unless the cuts to the scope of legal aid have been removed.

LAG is a member of the Justice for All steering group.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Justice for All meeting in the House of Lords

Members of the House of Lords attended a meeting yesterday organised by Justice for All on the future of civil legal aid. The meeting was hosted by Baroness D’Souza, Lord Newton, Lord Bach and Lord Phillips.

Welcoming members of the House of Lords and Justice for All to the meeting, Lord Bach, the former legal aid minister, stressed that the event was not a party political one. He said, 'I fear if the government’s proposals on legal aid become a reality it will be the very poor who will lose out most.' Lord Newton, the former Secretary of State for Social Security under Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, spoke of his 'anxiety' about the proposed reforms and stressed the need for Lords to be 'kept very well informed about them'. Lord Phillips, a Liberal Democrat peer said, 'With 10-1,300 new statute laws a year, it is organised hypocrisy if the government does not give people the means to access these laws.' Baroness D’Souza, a crossbench peer, stressed that it is 'important to organise' the effort to influence the legislation when it reaches the Lords.

After the initial speeches from the hosts, the meeting heard contributions from practitioners, organisations and clients concerned about the government’s proposals for civil legal aid. Laura Janes from Young Legal Aid Lawyers spoke about her work at the Howard League for Penal Reform, 'The children in prison I see usually have a history of years and years of unmet legal needs, which if they had been met would have most likely meant they would not have ended up in prison.' Many speakers stressed the importance of initial advice on problems to prevent them escalating. James Sandbach from Citizens Advice emphasised that it was through legal aid that Citizens Advice Bureaux provide specialist advice as 'sometimes those services provided by volunteers can only go so far'.

A speaker from the Women’s Institute, which is a member of Justice for All, talked about how the legal aid system helped her to escape a violent husband. She said that without legal aid she would have most likely remained in the abusive relationship afraid to bring divorce proceedings because her husband was 'a wealthy man'. A former client from the housing charity Shelter spoke of the need to be able to talk to someone face to face as many people facing multiple problems like her 'often do not have the confidence to simply pick up the phone for advice'.

Lucy Scott-Moncrieff from the Law Society said, 'We have come up with a package of cuts, including cutting fees, but not cutting scope, as we do have an alternative to the government’s proposals.' Steve Hynes from LAG said that he believed the bill to include provisions on legal aid is likely to receive its first reading in the House of Commons next month and that LAG would hope that, unless the bill was amended in the Commons, the Lords would take the opportunity to support amendments which provided 'alternatives to cuts in scope as these would hit the poorest and most vulnerable hardest'.

Gail Emerson from Citizens Advice closed the formal part of the meeting by outlining Justice for All's plans for the day of action on 3 June. She said that the day had been planned for the parliamentary Whitsun recess 'so that Justice for All members can see their MPs locally' and to 'highlight the impact of the proposed cuts at a local level'.

Image: Lord Phillips, a founder member and patron of LAG

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

LAG calls for a draft legal aid bill

LAG and the Law Society have today written a joint letter to the Secretary of State for Justice Kenneth Clarke calling on the government to publish its proposals for the reform of legal aid as a draft bill to be scrutinised by a special joint committee of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

Draft bills provide an opportunity for the public and special interest groups to give evidence on the impact of the proposals in them. In the letter to Kenneth Clarke, LAG and the Law Society point out that the government has received over 5,000 submissions on its proposals for legal aid and that the Justice Committee in its recent report argued that the proposals needed 'substantial further refinement'. LAG has calculated that the proposed cuts of £49m in social welfare law alone will cost the government £286.2m in extra spending on other public services.

The letter goes on to say: 'We also share the Justice Select Committee’s concerns over the definition of domestic violence. It both acts as a perverse incentive to make false claims and prevents women who are victims, but do not wish to pursue a complaint in the courts, from receiving legal aid for assistance with the legal issues surrounding a relationship breakdown.'

LAG and the Law Society are also concerned over the government's proposals on civil litigation. They argue in the letter that the government's plans to change the rules on paying for damages cases are 'unjust' and call for more research on the effects of the proposed changes.

LAG believes that what the government is proposing for legal aid will have a profound impact on the ability of many ordinary people to obtain legal advice and representation. Our recent research shows that 150,000 more people than the government's original estimate of 500,000, will miss out on being able to get help with housing, employment and other common civil legal problems. We believe a draft bill would give an opportunity for a proper consultation to take place on the plans for legal aid, as without this tens of thousands of people will be denied access to justice.

A copy of the full text of the letter is available at:

Image: Ministry of Justice