Friday, 24 June 2011

Legal Aid Bill cuts a further blow for the poorest

Severe cuts to Legal Aid will go ahead virtually unchanged, as the Sentencing and Legal Aid Bill was published this week by Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke MP.

A coalition of groups joined forces today at Wigan & Leigh Magistrates Court including Wigan & Leigh Citizens Advice Bureau, Stephensons Solicitors and representatives from the local Law Society calling on the Government to ‘think again’.

Free legal advice helps families stay together in their homes, in work and education. Over 650 000 people will lose out on this vital help through reforms to legal aid alone, at a time where other funding streams for free advice are under threat.
Reforms to Legal Aid will decimate the capacity of CAB, Law Centres, legal aid practitioners and other community advice agencies to help the most vulnerable people with serious everyday problems with issues like debt, employment, housing, benefits, immigration, clinical negligence and family matters.

The Bill also has profound implications for litigation funding and costs with proposals to reform "no win no fee" Conditional Fee Agreements (CFAs).

Legal Aid was responsible for winning compensation for the miners in the 1960-70s, helped the Thalidomide children in the 1970s, and more recently, allowed the Gurkhas to win the right to live in the UK in 2008.
Over half a million people will lose out on advice, according to the Government's own figures, as the legal aid budget is cut by £350 million.

The proposals will very seriously restrict what advice legal aid funds, especially in social welfare, family and education law and who can get legal aid.

New figures demonstrate the impact on the Wigan Borough. Government proposals will see a 76% cut in the number of cases currently eligible for Legal Aid equating to over 2,300 fewer cases compared to 2010 with a total loss of funding of £428,000 to Legal Aid providers in the Borough.

The government should have listened to ‘thousands of dissenting voices’ and introduced reforms that would make the necessary savings without simply transferring costs to other parts of the public sector.

Legal Aid provision will be decimated in Wigan if Ken Clarke’s proposals remain unchanged. At some point in people’s lives they will need access to help currently funded by Legal Aid.

Legal Aid is a vital public service that we don’t often think about in the same way as the NHS or schools but it provides a lifeline for people who require professional advice on a wide range of issues from welfare benefits to clinical negligence.

The government's proposed cuts will make access to justice the preserve of the rich and powerful.

Ann Harrison, Chair of Stephensons Solicitors said, “Legal Aid is a fundamental right in any democratic society. It allows the poor, the vulnerable and the oppressed to have a voice and to be represented against large commercial organisations. We undermine our Legal Aid system at our peril.”

Chris Harris, Manager of Wigan Borough Citizens Advice Bureau said, “There is a powerful business case for Legal Aid funding for social welfare law advice, but, more importantly, the issue at stake is the access to justice for the most vulnerable."
“Effective face-to-face legal help, provided at the earliest opportunity, makes a vital contribution to preventing future problems such as homelessness, spiralling debt, family breakdown or stress, mental illness, as well as supporting people when they leave prison and helping refugees to settle more successfully into life in the UK."

“There are considerable needs for debt and welfare benefits advice, and we expect this to increase in the current economic situation, at a time when many people will be facing redundancy, and as the Government’s plans for radical changes to the welfare benefit system and the cuts to specific benefits are implemented.”

Visit here for full details of the Bill.

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