Guest Blog by Frances Trevena a member of Young Legal Aid Lawyers.
It is common knowledge that Government plans to reduce the costs of public services are having a severe impact across society. This austerity plan is having a disproportionate impact on disabled people. It affects benefits, services provided both centrally and from Local Authorities and even basic community amenities that disabled people rely on. It is also affecting access to justice across a range of legal areas.
When you might need Legal Aid
The effect on access to justice will be particularly profound for disabled people. It may seem that it will not affect the vast majority of people, yet legal advisors in solicitors’ firms, citizens advice bureaux and law centres offer assistance to huge numbers of people who have lost out on benefits – including those who are wrongly assessed as able to work. They also help those who have problems at work, with their families or their homes. But this help is under threat if the Government gets its way on a law about to go before MPs. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (also known as the Legal Aid Bill) sets out Government plans to cut free advice for many types of legal problems.
Physically limiting access
People can currently access legal help in a variety of ways including visiting solicitors’ offices, telephoning a helpline or being referred by advice agencies to specialist services. All of these are designed to assist someone to find a solicitor and calculate whether they are eligible for Legal Aid. The Government has set out proposals to remove the option of face-to-face appointments and require anyone seeking Legal Aid to first contact a telephone advice gateway. The aim would be that this would act as “triage” and filter out those who did not require face-to-face legal advice. Disabled people in particular have seen how many of these contracted-out services are run to the detriment of their users. DPAC have written about the fiasco caused by ATOS carrying out assessments and the issue of benefit cuts.
The Government has now conceded in the face of their own evidence that it would be inappropriate to include Community Care law as part of the initial trial. However, plans remain in place for other areas of Legal Aid law to be accessed through the telephone gateway. The first areas of law to be affected are debt, discrimination and special educational needs. The House of Lords changed the Legal Aid Bill so that the Government would not be able to set-up this mandatory telephone gateway. However, the Government can overturn this amendment when the Legal Aid Bill goes back to the House of Commons on 17 April.
The Government wants to remove all welfare benefits advice from the Legal Aid scheme. The House of Lords took a strong stance against this following the Welfare Reform Bill and the increasing pressure to force people onto work programmes. They have changed the Legal Aid Bill so that Legal Aid will continue to be available for appeals against Department for Work and Pension decisions. However, the House of Commons can overturn this amendment when they debate the Legal Aid Bill again on 17 April.
Other areas of law
The areas of law affected by the Legal Aid Bill are huge. If the Government is able to push the legislation through Parliament, then most people will either have to pay to see a lawyer or go without justice. This is particularly important to anyone who is likely to need a solicitor: whether through problems at home, with family or at work. Most likely to affect disabled people are:
– Clinical Negligence claims: the removal of Legal Aid in gathering reports will mean that before a case is even begun, you will need to fund an expert report.
– Employment: the Government is seeking to prevent someone from even having an initial publicly funded session with a Legal Aid lawyer. This has greater impact for disabled people, because they are most likely to face prejudice and harassment at work and discrimination in even getting in to work.
– Housing: Legal Aid will fund only those who are at risk of losing their homes, even where initial advice and assistance could prevent this from happening. This is particularly important if you are living in a home where adaptations have been made for ease of mobility.
Where to, then?
If the Government proposals go ahead, then those who are no longer eligible for Legal Aid will be seeking access to justice from charities and the not-for-profit sector. However many charities and citizens advice bureaux are facing cuts in funding, not only from a loss of Legal Aid, but also from a reduction in external funding and particularly funds from Local Authorities who are withdrawing their support for services considered non-essential.
It is of particular concern that where advice centres remain they will not necessarily have specialist staff who will be able to deal with specific problems. For disabled people, whose needs are often more complex and intersect a number of different areas, this is worrying.
A recent report from the Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) has highlighted that faced with these cuts and nowhere else to turn people are likely to turn to their MPs to provide assistance. Of the MPs interviewed by YLAL a third of MPs spend somewhere between 50-75% of their time dealing with the issues of their constituents. To make matters worse, at the moment, MPs can refer these cases on to law firms and legal advice organisations if specialist, expert advice is required. Seventy-one per cent of MPs and caseworkers interviewed by YLAL had referred constituents to a legal adviser in the six months preceding the study.
Act now to save Legal Aid
Having faced some amendments to the Bill, which were largely positive in the House of Lords, the Bill is now returning for final consideration in the House of Commons on 17 April 2012. Now is your final chance to have your say and to lobby your MP to act on your behalf.
If you are concerned about the impact of the legal aid cuts on you, and on wider society, please take time to write to your MP urging them to vote for amendments to the Bill. Send them YLAL’s report (find a copy here) or Justice for All’s report on the challenges facing law centres and Citizens Advice Bureaux (available here). A quick link to a letter to your MP is here. Please spread the word now – we only have a few days left to save legal aid.
Frances Trevena is a member of Young Legal Aid Lawyers.
Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) is a group of lawyers who are committed to practising in those areas of law, both criminal and civil, that have traditionally been publicly funded. YLAL members include students, paralegals, trainee solicitors, pupil barristers and qualified junior lawyers based throughout England and Wales. We believe that the provision of good quality publicly funded legal help is essential to protecting the interests of those with least in society and upholding the rule of law.