Nine out of ten Citizens Advice Bureaux (92 per cent) are finding it difficult to refer people to the specialist legal advice they need since cuts to legal aid came into effect last year, the charity has found, leading to benefits appeals failing because of lack of written submissions and supporting evidence.
Citizens Advice is reporting it is now extremely hard to get legal aid around issues such as housing, relationship breakdown or employment disputes. Where limited provision of legal aid remains people have to meet very stringent criteria. The length of time it takes to get legal aid means people’s situations often become far worse than they would have had there been earlier intervention.
In some cases legal aid is now simply not available, such as to help with getting employers to pay outstanding wages or challenging unfair benefit decisions.
Chief Executive of Citizens Advice Gillian Guy will today share this evidence with the Justice Select Committee inquiry into the impact of changes to civil legal aid. Guy will call for a Government strategy on funding of advice, to ensure that people can access the right level of advice, at the right time, in the right way for them.
Citizens Advice also reveals a 62 per cent increase in people seeking online advice about help with legal costs.
Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:
"Cuts to legal aid have created an advice gap, stranding people with nowhere to turn. At precisely the time when people’s need for specialist advice on issues such as housing and welfare increased, provision for this support has been slashed.
"Modern life presents increasingly complex problems and people need help to understand, adjust to, and in many cases challenge decisions affecting their income, housing and work status.
"In a rapidly changing world, where people’s expectations of services are rising, accessing the right advice at the right time will be critical to help people solve problems and understand what government changes mean for them."
In the year before changes introduced under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) came into effect Citizens Advice Bureaux provided specialist advice in approximately 136,000 cases to help people struggling with legal problems. Changes introduced under LASPO have withdrawn support for approximately 120,000 of these cases.
A CAB in the North West reported:
"Benefits appeals are failing as clients are unable to pay for supportive medical evidence and/or are attending on their own without submissions. There have been problems with referring clients to specialist advice to challenge decisions on benefit entitlement and overpayment issues, including assembling specialist medical evidence to support ESA and DLA/PIP claims and preparing cases for appeal."