By Yvonne Fovargue MP - 6th March 2012
Yvonne Fovargue MP says government cuts to legal aid will not result in savings – "they are not just heartless but economically unsound".
Legal aid is often bracketed (and rightly so) as one of the founding pillars of the welfare state, created after the second world war along with the NHS, social housing and the welfare state.
Justice secretary Ken Clarke's Bill, removing from the scope of legal aid whole categories of social welfare law (such as welfare benefits, education and employment), and drastically cutting others (such as housing and family law), are a fundamental attack on the right of access to justice for all.
It is impossible to discuss the effects of the proposed changes to legal aid on the advice sector without setting the scene.
The advice sector is already struggling!
Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) expect to receive £51.3m less in 2012/13 than they did in 2010/11 and Law Centres have already seen a 52 per cent cut in their local authority funding. The removal of social welfare law from the scope of legal aid will be the final devastating blow for many agencies. CABs will lose a further £21m and Law Centres a further 46 per cent of their income.
Three quarters of Law Centres and half of CABs expect to shut completely if the changes go through and all expect to reduce their services even if they do not close completely.
In CABs alone up to 500 specialist advisers are employed to assist people with resolving legal problems and the funding for these advisers will be removed. Their clients, who are disproportionately poor and disadvantaged, people with disabilities, black and minority ethnic will have nowhere else to turn to and, indeed may end up on the doorstep of MP advice surgeries – which certainly do not have the expertise to deal with the complex legal issues around benefit, debt, housing and employment currently handled by specialist caseworkers.
The legal aid changes which remove social welfare law from scope could leave vast areas without any advice agencies.
Manchester Citizens Advice service, the largest community legal advice service in the country was awarded the contract in Oct 2010, to run for three years with a further two year if targets were met. If the Bill receives Royal Assent, without significant change, £1.2m will be lost with 97% of specialist services vanishing overnight.
As contracts for premises etc were signed for there is a real risk that the whole service will fail and the 35,000 people who have used the service will have nowhere to go and Manchester will be an advice desert.
Fine words have been spoken by David Cameron and Ken Clarke about the value of Citizens Advice and its network of local bureau but words alone will not keep the services running.
Access to advice will be severely restricted just at the time of the biggest upheaval of Welfare for both disabled and non disabled people – the introduction of Personal Independence Payment and Universal Credit.
Vulnerable people will be left with nowhere to turn – many will knock on the door of cash starved local authorities as they fall through the cracks. These cuts will not result in savings – they are not just heartless but economically unsound.
Yvonne Fovergueis an Opposition Whip and has been Labour MP for Makerfield since 2010.