23 November 2010
The coalition’s plans to end legal aid for many areas of law, including welfare benefits, have so far met with a muted response. This is in spite of the havoc it is likely to cause to both claimants and the advice sector, where many agencies may shrink drastically or close down altogether.
The Proposal for the Reform of Legal aid in England and Wales green paper was published on 15 November. In it, the coalition sets out its plans to slash legal aid for the poorest in society. Amongst the plans is the removal of legal aid for:
- welfare benefits.
Anyone with capital of £1,000 or more will have to pay a minimum of £100 towards their legal aid fees, and higher contributions will be expected from those who currently contribute to their legal fees.
The cuts, if they are introduced, may see the few solicitors firms still offering affordable benefits advice pulling out. Independent advice agencies and law centres may also be particularly vulnerable.
Many Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB) also rely heavily on legal aid to fund advice staff as well as admin workers and management. This is particularly the case in relation to welfare benefits, debt and housing. The political repercussions of hundreds of CABs closing would be severe and would also lead to rapidly increasing caseloads for MPs constituency offices, which increasingly get involved in benefits issues.
As a result the coalition has already hinted that a new way of funding Citizen’s Advice Bureaux will be found.
However, if the funding arrangement involves millions of pounds being given to the national Citizens Advice body to distribute to individual CABs, this could dramatically alter the nature of what have always been fiercely independent local charities. Funding is also likely to come with strings attached which may reduce the ability of bureaux to support benefits claimants in relation to appeals, for example.
The proposed legal aid cuts have met virtually no opposition from the labour party, which has admitted it planned to slash legal aid too. Nor has there been, as yet, any organised response from the advice sector. A campaign to ensure that everyone is treated fairly under the law, Justice for All, has recently been formed and a website set up by a coalition of agencies including:
- Law Centres Federation
- Advice UK
- Citizens Advice
- Legal Action Group
Visitors are urged to join Justice for All and have their name displayed on the website. Unfortunately, no information is given about what practical campaigning activities Justice for All is actually undertaking.