Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Politics is local

In our democracy people expect to be able to enforce the laws which politicians like to boast about having made. They need access to legal and advice services to do this. LAG has produced new sets of figures to demonstrate the impact of the legal aid cuts at a local level.

On our website you will find a document which breaks down the reductions in legal aid for housing, debt, benefits and employment cases. Figures are shown for each area of the country (or 'bid zone' as referred to by the Legal Services Commission).

Local MPs need to be aware of these figures. So do local councils, as the next phase of opposition to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill is to bring it home to politicians what the impact of these cuts will be. In an article in the July edition of LAG's magazine Legal Action, we give the examples of Bolton and Ealing. Very different areas of the country, both with marginal seats - one with a Conservative marginal and one with a Labour marginal. Both will be hit by cuts in legal aid which the public should be made aware of. While this might not be as decisive in an election as cuts in education or health, it can contribute to a general feeling of dissatisfaction and disillusionment with a government.

Above all politics is local. A local Citizens Advice Bureau cutting back or closing completely has an impact, particularly if the government is seen to be at fault. Solicitors are often reluctant to publicise withdrawing from legal aid work, cutting back or closures, but publicity about this can get the public to make the political connection between government policies and their local community.

Making the case at local level against these cuts is part of a dual strategy to resist this bill. We would urge advice agencies and solicitors to publicise the impact of these cuts at a local level using the figures above. The second part is to persuade parliament to agree to amendments. The Liberal Democrat peer Lord Carlile speaking at the last All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid made a number of salient points on this.

The government is up against a tight timetable. It has to get the bill through both houses by May next year. Concessions will need to be made. The government has already recognised the strength of the not for profit sector's case with the announcement of the £20m fund last week. We would stress, though, that the details of this have to be worked out and we cannot be detracted from ensuring that amendments to the bill articulate a vision for the legal system that ensures access to justice.

This blog is adapted from a speech by LAG's director Steve Hynes given at LAG's recent social welfare law conference. A full copy of the speech is available here.

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