The legal advice sector was “buckling under the strain” of the impact of a “triple whammy” of legal aid cuts, fall in local authority funding and a sharp increase in demand, reports the author of a new inquiry into future of publicly-funded legal advice.
Lord Low of Dalston argues that the media reports on the strike by criminal defence lawyers and concerns about the government’s proposed cuts in legal aid on people accused of crimes, should not obscure the impact of last year’s cuts under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act which effectively removed £350 million from non-criminal legal aid.
- You can sign a new petition by the Justice Alliance to oppose cuts to the legal aid scheme – launched today – by going HERE
- See below for an interview with leading legal correspondent Joshua Rozenberg by Lucy Britt about the impact of cuts on the criminal Bar
- Read Daniel Newman on legal aid and “the media agenda” HERE and James Sandbach on the Low Commission HERE
- Thanks to everyone who voted on the JusticeGap poll over the last week (130 at the time of going to press) – 97% backed last week’s national walk-out by thousands of criminal lawyers at courts all over England and Wales over the cuts
Lord Low, a well-known disability rights campaigner, chairs the Low Commission on the Future of Advice and Legal Support which was established by Legal Action Group to look at the future of the legal advice sector post-LASSPO.
“Criminal justice is not the only kind of justice. What has attracted less attention from the media – until now at least – are the equally severe cuts affecting the civil legal aid scheme. For ordinary people facing problems with housing, debt or employment, timely and expert legal advice can be just as important for ensuring they receive justice and can get on with their lives.”
The Low Commission found an advice sector “buckling under the strain’ with “ordinary people left with nowhere to turn”. Lord Low reports telephone helplines “overwhelmed by demand” with for example, the homeless charity Shelter able to answer “just 60,000 of its 140,000 calls” and only 45% of calls to Citizens Advice answered. However “bucking the trend” was the government-run Civil Legal Advice phone line, through which anyone seeking legal aid help must call. That service was “so poorly promoted and hard for people to find” that calls actually fell last year from 35,000 in April 2013, to 20,000 in July.
“We reckon £89 million a year has been taken out of legal aid for social welfare law and at least a further £40 million will have gone from local authority funding for legal support by 2015,” Lord Low told guests at the report’s launch at the House of Commons this week. “As a result services are closing or retrenching on a significant scale.”
Following a 12 month inquiry, the Low Commission made 100 recommendations including calling on the next government to stump up another £50m a year to help ensure a ‘basic level of provision’ for social welfare law advice. It made the case for another £50m to be raised to match the government contribution from a wide range of sources include a levy on payday loan companies, contributions from trusts and foundations as well as from individual law firms.
The Low Commission makes six overarching recommendations:
- Public legal education should be given higher priority both in the school (alongside financial literacy) and in “education for life” so that people know their rights;
- Central and local government should do more to reduce preventable demand (for example, by requiring the DWP to pay costs on upheld appeals).
- Courts and tribunals should review how they can operate more efficiently and effectively (for example, through adapting their model of dispute resolution at every stage to meet the needs of litigants with little or no support).
- The next UK government should develop a National Strategy for Advice and Legal Support for 2015–20, preferably with all-party support, and the Welsh Government should develop a similar strategy for Wales.
- There should be a Minister for Advice and Legal Support, within the MoJ, with a cross-departmental brief for leading the development of this strategy.
- Local authorities should commission local advice and legal support plans with local not-for-profit and commercial advice agencies.
- The next UK government should establish a ten-year National Advice and Legal Support Fund of £50m pa, to be administered by the Big Lottery Fund, to help develop provision of information, advice and legal support on social welfare law in line with local plans
Meanwhile, the Justice Alliance today launched a new petition to the government to save legal aid and protect access to justice for all. The actor Joanna Lumley, who famously campaigned on behalf of the Gurkhas, was the first person to sign up. Lumley has previously made the point that without legal aid, the Gurkhas’ campaign for justice could never have been waged.
The petition calls on the government ‘to halt or repeal all changes that have been proposed in Transforming Legal Aid, which have no mandate since the Liberal Democrat motion opposing them in September 2013.’
‘Many of the changes have been criticised by Parliament’s expert human rights committee. We believe that these changes to civil and criminal legal aid undermine the rule of law (fairness) and access to justice: they will lead to an unequal society where those with wealth and power have an unfair advantage before the law.’
Justice Alliance’s petition to save access to justice
The Transforming Legal Aid paper proposed a further £220 million cut to the legal aid budget, through cuts to criminal legal aid funding, as well as restricting legal aid for prisoners and for those seeking judicial review, as well as imposing a residence test.
Sign the petition HERE
See below for an interview with the journalist Joshua Rozenberg talking about his concerns about the impact of the legal aid aid cuts and the future of legal services in this country”. Rozenberg argues that that the criminal Bar could be “at serious risk if the Government goes ahead with its proposals.”
“If the criminal bar is at risk you are going to get fewer trainees and fewer people qualified as criminal lawyers and it will be harder to recruit criminal judges in the future. If you don’t have criminal judges with experience in criminal law, then the criminal law will get into difficulty.”