May 21 2024
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The towns where there’s no access to free legal advice

The towns where there’s no access to free legal advice

Ebbw Vale in south Wales. ‘A town that’s suffered greatly over the last 20 years.’ Photograph: Richard Jones/The Guardian

Ebbw Vale is an hour by train from Cardiff, a journey through the Welsh valleys that offers reminders of its industrial past: the redundant pithead at Cwm, the last deep mine in the area, to Ebbw Vale Parkway station on the site of the world-famous steelworks that once employed 13,000 but closed in 2002.

At the local foodbank, in the former magistrate’s court, I visited as part of a project run by Cardiff University looking at the impact of the govermment’s 2013 legal aid cuts on the threadbare and fraying safety net of advice agencies and what happens to people who fall through the gaps. Universal credit was rolled out last June. Sharon Morgan has complex benefit problems that need the attention of a legal aid social security law expert. Deductions are being taken from her benefits because of an advance made to cover the five-week wait for her first universal credit payment. She is also repaying child tax credit that was erroneously paid for eight weeks after the death of her young son from leukaemia. It is a loss of income that has tipped a grief-stricken family into crisis.“We live from day to day, hand-to-mouth,” says her mother. “People have helped but everyone’s in the same situation.”

This article appeared in the Guardian today.

It draws on interviews done in the Justice in a time of Austerity project by Jon Robins and dr Dan Newman. The project is supported by Cardiff University and the international law firm Ashurst LPP.

The idea is over the course of a year starting last September to interview people in 12 different parts of the country. So far Jon and Dan have done more than 150 interviews in Birmingham, Brighton, Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan, Cumbria, Greater Manchester, Kensington, Lambeth, Liverpool, Newham, North-East Wales, South Wales Valleys and Suffolk.

There will be a feature on the project in the next issue of Proof magazine.

In Ebbw Vale there are no legal aid lawyers, no Citizens Advice and no law centre. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo) slashed the legal aid budget in England and Wales by a third in April 2013. It removed £751m and swaths of legal advice from the legal aid scheme, including welfare benefits, housing (except where there is a risk of homelessness), employment, family law (unless there is evidence of domestic violence) and immigration. In Wales, there were 31 providers of publicly funded benefits advice: now there are three. The number of firms providing legal aid has fallen by 29% compared with 20% in England.

The fragile advice sectorhas been hit by a doubly whammy of Laspo and local authority cuts. Before 2013, legal aid would typically account for 40% of a law centre’s income and 40% from local authorities. Since Laspo, the income of law centres has halved and 11 have been forced to close, leaving none in the whole of Wales and only 43 in England offering specialist advice for those who cannot afford to pay a lawyer.

The Law Society defines an advice desert as an area where advice is not available through legal aid or where there is only one provider locally. It reckons that almost a third of legal aid areas in England and Walesnow have only one or no local legal aid housing advice providers at all.

There are problems in England too. Bolton, in Greater Manchester, might not qualify as a legal advice desert: there are two providers with housing legal aid contracts, including Citizens Advice Bolton. Yet its chief executive, Richard Wilkinson, says the sector has been “decimated”. He says: “It’s “virtually impossible for someone to access specialist legal advice in social welfare law”.

I previously visited Bolton eight years ago, before the Laspo cuts. Its waiting room is as busy as it was then when Citizens Advice helped 14,000 people. In 2018 it helped 10,807.

“The numbers coming in mightn’t be dissimilar but what they get now is one-off advice,” Wilkinson says. “They don’t get deeper case work and they don’t get representation in courts or tribunals. People are disappearing through the cracks.”

Citizens Advice is a shadow of its former self. In 2011 it had 55 staff, now it has 24. “We had four funding sources, and 70% of income was from legal aid. Now we have half the income and five times the number of income streams, such as a £3,000 grant for an outreach project and £5,000 to work local schools.” Citizens Advice still has legal aid contracts for community care, housing, immigration and some benefits advice. Back in 2010, under its legal aid contract, the bureau had 1,700 cases for welfare benefits. “All gone,” says Wilkinson.

Richard Jones:CitadelShops are closed is Ebbw Vale high street, Blaenau Gwent, South Wales, UK. Ebbw Vale is considered one of the most deprived areas of the Wales and the UK in terms of unemployment, health and education. It was once a thriving community and the location of a large steel works with several coal mins in close proximity. Photo by Richard Jones

Closed shops in Ebbw Vale high street Photograph: Richard Jones/The Guardian

The law centre was set up 12 months ago and was born out of the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality. A small team of 12 paid staff works across both charities, and the law centre draws on 100 volunteers, including local lawyers, to hold clinics in family, employment housing, immigration and personal injury advice.

According to Ludwig, the centre’s funding is “precarious”, coming from a range of project grants, with little core funding and no legal aid. “We are a sticking plaster,” he says. “We have waiting lists of several months.”

Last year the fledgling law centre won a legal aid contract for a much-needed housing lawyer. It was the only organisation to tender. The contract was conditional on the centre being able to recruit a supervising housing lawyer with three years’ experience. It has advertised three times but, so far, hasn’t been able to fill the post because so many experienced lawyers have left the field. “It’s a sad reflection of the state of sector,” says Ludwig.

Last month the government belatedly published its five-year review of Laspo. As a result, it has promised £8m, mainly for IT, aimed at “making sure that people can access the right help”.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman says: “Every person should have access to legal advice when they need it – that’s why the Legal Aid Agency keeps availability under constant review and takes urgent action whenever it has concerns … Legal aid services are not set by local authority area so even where a local authority has no providers its residents will be covered by other providers nearby. There are now more law firm branches offering legal aid services than under the previous contracts.”

Some names have been changed