Monday, 5 March 2012

Government ignoring public opinion on civil legal aid

A report published today (5 March) by Legal Action Group (LAG) finds that public opinion strongly supports the provision of legal services paid for by the state.

LAG’s report, Social welfare law: what the public wants from civil legal aid, details the findings of an opinion poll of 1,000 members of the public which was conducted for LAG by GfK NOP, the market research company, in January this year.

The report’s findings include:

- 82% of respondents believed that free advice on common civil legal problems should be available to everyone, or at least to those with income on or below the national average wage.

- Support for legal services paid for by the state was consistent across social classes.

- People in social class DE were the least likely to be willing to use the internet or telephone to obtain advice.

- There was rising support across all social classes for employment law advice to be paid for by the state, which we conclude is caused by people’s anxiety over their employment rights due to the economic slowdown.

LAG believes the message to the government from the results of this opinion poll is very clear. People believe it is fair for the state to pay for advice on the everyday legal problems which life can throw at them and by proposing to cut much of civil legal aid, the government is in danger of completely ignoring the views of the public.

In October 2010, GfK NOP carried out the same poll for LAG. The results in the current poll practically mirror those of the first poll. This indicates that despite the government’s arguments around the need to reduce the deficit, support from the public for legal advice services paid for by the state has remained consistent.

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, known as the Legal Aid Bill, reaches the report stage in the House of Lords today. If it is not amended, people will lose access to advice on most civil legal problems to do with housing, employment, benefits and debt, and other areas of civil law, often referred to as social welfare law. We are calling on parliament to persuade the government to reverse its decision to withdraw civil legal aid for advice on the sorts of problems which many people are now facing due to the economic slowdown.

Copies of the report are being sent to parliamentarians and policy-makers. It makes the following recommendations:

- The proposed cuts to legal aid for housing, employment and benefits cases should be reversed (at a cost of £40m).

- Custody cases and other legal issues that directly impact on children should continue to be covered by the legal aid system, reflecting the public’s main priority of protecting children.

- Provision should be made in the bill to allow for the extension of legal aid to other areas of law. This would be in keeping with previous legislation and would give future governments the flexibility to respond to demand for services caused by developments in the law, shifts in demand and public opinion, as well as other factors.

- The government should adopt a 'polluter pays' policy, which should include other arms of the state paying for the knock-on costs to the legal aid system.

- Plans to filter cases through a telephone gateway should be dropped, as the people who qualify for legal aid are the least likely to use such services.

After the report stage, the Legal Aid Bill will move on to its third reading in the Lords. Unlike in the House of Commons, amendments to a bill at this stage are often taken in the Lords before it is sent to the Commons for final approval. LAG, Justice for All and the other campaign organisations opposed to the bill have pledged to continue fighting to persuade the government to amend it until the last possible opportunity. This opinion poll shows that the public instinctively believes that civil legal aid is essential to ensure access to justice. It's time for the government to show that it understands this as well.

Steve Hynes,
Director of LAG

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