Government attacks access to Justice
28th June 2011
Second reading of the Legal aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill - MPs urged to fight government plans to cut free legal advice
People in Sheffield urge their MPs to speak out against proposed cuts to free legal advice ahead of the second reading of the Legal aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill in Parliament on Wednesday 29th June.
Carita Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org
Douglas Johnson – email@example.com, tel 07981 860 662
This bill, which is being rushed through parliament, will radically change the face of legal aid by taking away free help in many areas of law like:
• employment disputes,
• clinical negligence, and
• family cases involving children
It will drastically reduce the number of people who will qualify for free legal advice. Many legal aid firms and charities will have to stop this type of work, making it much harder to get advice at all.
Legal aid is currently a value-for-money service provided by modestly-paid legal aid solicitors, advice centres, Law Centres and CABx to target mainly low-cost preventative work. If this bill becomes law, over 650,000 of the poorest and most vulnerable people will no longer be able to get the vital advice they need.
Sheffield campaigners are angry that the Government has left little time for proper scrutiny.
Usually there are two weekends between a first and second reading. There were over 5,000 responses to the consultation on legal aid so the Government knows how important it is to the public, yet it has put it on a fast track after the first reading on 21st June. This has only been done five times in recent history, for subjects like terrorism.
But this has not been enough to put off our MPs. Paul Blomfield MP of Sheffield Central is one who will be among those at the reading tomorrow. At a rally on 3rd June at Sheffield Town Hall, he sent this message of support, citing the false economy of the Government’s proposed cuts:
“By cutting initial first-stage advice, the problems that people have will get worse, more complicated and will end up costing the public purse more in the long run. This Government is so desperate to make cuts that they’re blinkered to the long term monetary, social and human impact of their cuts. It’s reckless, and they need to listen to the 5000 submissions to their consultation and rethink.”
At that rally Sheffield MP David Blunkett said:
“I hear a lot of talk about the rule of law but we can’t have the rule of law if people can’t afford the law.”
Carita Thomas of Sheffield Justice for All said:
“I agree with the comments of the MPs who came to our rally on 3rd June. Over 90% of those who responded to the consultation disagreed with the proposals. But the Government has brought in this bill almost unchanged. They have even made things worse, like bringing in a new provision to take away automatic free legal aid in the police station. This bill is an assault on the fundamental values we should be proud to hold in this country, and an assault on the poorest and most vulnerable people who need help to access their rights. I am glad that my MP Paul Blomfield will be at the debate in Parliament and hope other politicians in Sheffield will add their support to our campaign.”
Douglas Johnson, of Sheffield Law Centre, added,
“90% of the responses to the Government consultation actively opposed the cuts in the scope of legal aid. It’s clear the Government isn’t listening and doesn’t bother to understand that preventative work saves public money in other areas.
What is just as worrying is that some free advice - such as for discrimination - will only be available through a mandatory helpline. This is itself is going to discriminate further – how will people with hearing impairments, mental health problems or carriers bags full of papers manage to get any assistance?
Sheffield Justice for All are asking everyone to write to their MP to express their concerns and join the campaign to save legal aid.
NOTES TO EDITORS
1. The Government’s bill “Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill” was published on 21st June 2011.
2. The key changes are that legal aid will no longer be available for:
• Clinical negligence claims;
• Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority cases - for victims of crime;
• Debt (except to help at the late stage where the individual is facing eviction and when it can often be too late to resolve the underlying debt problem);
• Employment disputes (except discrimination cases);
• Education cases (except Special Educational Needs cases);
• Housing matters (except where a person is homeless). However, legal aid will not be available to address the underlying causes of the threat of eviction such as welfare benefits issues; Nor will it be available for a range of serious housing problems including advice on whether an individual has the correct priority for the allocation of social housing; help to remedy poor housing conditions which fall short of causing “serious risk” to the tenant; assistance to stop harassment by a landlord or neighbour;
• Immigration cases (except for those in immigration detention or cases involving torture or claims under the Refugee Convention). Family reunion, deportation appeals and refusals of leave to remain applications are excluded;
• 8.Family matters (unless there is “objective evidence” of domestic violence). This includes divorce and disputes over contact with children;
• Welfare benefits matters even when there is an immediate risk of homelessness or eviction from the individual’s home;
• Cases that have a “wider public interest”;
3. Legal aid expenditure was £2.1 billion in 2008/09, of which £700m (33%) was for high-level criminal cases (Crown Court trials), £650m (31%) was for full civil legal aid. Only £263m (12½%) was spent on civil legal aid advice and assistance (“legal help”). The not-for- profit sector (CABx, Law centres, independent advice centres, etc.) benefits from £78m of this funding.
4. The Government proposes to cut 28% of legal aid funding. The NFP sector will be affected by a cut of 77% of its funding.
5. 943,904 people were helped with legal aid in 2010-11; under the proposals, 653,659 people will no longer be able to receive a service, according to research by the Legal Action Group.
6. The cuts are a false economy. The Government itself has noted the potential for: “increased resource costs for other Departments. If civil and family issues are not resolved effectively people might continue to rely upon the state, including because failure to resolve one issue may lead to another arising. This may include health, housing, education and other local authority services including services provided by the voluntary and community sector” Green Paper Cumulative Impact Assessment page 9 paragraph 27.
This issue was also recognised by the Commission of Inquiry into legal aid:
The extent of the false economy of legal aid cuts was clear from the individual testimony that we received which demonstrated the potential for unsolved legal problems to spiral out of control. For example, AB: “My benefits stopped because I was no longer entitled to receive them. This meant that I could not afford to pay my rent and around three years ago I was evicted… I had to sleep on the streets because I had nowhere else to go… I was attacked on quite a few occasions. I also became ill very quickly and eventually I ended up in hospital around a year later. I was diagnosed with a long-term illness that meant I had problems with my physical health. I was also suffering from severe depression.” “Unequal before the law? The future of legal aid” page 60
Citizens Advice have endeavoured to quantify the “knock-on” costs of removing legal aid estimating that for every £1 spent on housing advice, debt advice, employment advice and benefits advice the state saves between £2.34 and £8.80 (“Towards a business case for legal aid” Citizens Advice July 2010 page 2). In respect of this the Justice Select Committee has said:
“We are surprised that the Government is proposing to make such changes without assessing their likely impact on spending from the public purse and we call on them to do so before taking a final decision on implementation.” Government’s proposed reforms of legal aid, Justice Select Committee HC 681 March 2011
It will defeat the point of the cuts if they simply result in further costs later on.
7. In 2009, the Legal Services Commission said, “Legal aid gives people who can least afford it access to justice, which provides a vital safety net and makes our society a civilised one.”
8. Justice for All (www.justice-for-all.org.uk) is a coalition of over 3000 charities, legal and advice agencies, politicians, trade unions, community groups and members of the public and campaigns to raise awareness of the effect of the proposed cut in access to justice.
Sheffield Justice for All is the local branch of the campaign. If you would like to join, get in touch!
For further information on this press release, please contact Carita Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org or 07791 450620 or Douglas Johnson on email@example.com or at 0114 273 1501 / 07981 860662, Caroline Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org
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