20 September 2010

Claimants may soon find it almost impossible to get independent legal help with claims and appeals. Fears are growing that the coalition is to axe legal aid for help with welfare benefits, resulting in many advice agencies losing their welfare rights workers.

The threat to help for claimants comes as a result of the plans to cut a rumoured £500 million in legal aid spending.  Areas strongly tipped to be axed in order to save cash include welfare benefits, debt and employment law.  These are all issues with which many thousands of ordinary members of the public are likely to need help as spending cuts bite and companies make staff redundant or seek to dismiss them unlawfully to save money.  The demand for help with benefits is also likely to skyrocket as incapacity benefit claimants begin being assessed for employment and support allowance next year.

Meanwhile, there is already chaos in the advice sector as a result of the way the Legal Services Commission has awarded contracts to solicitors and advice agencies.  In a bid to save money, the LSC has awarded a smaller number of contracts and also concentrated work in the hands of a the biggest agencies.

However, the way that the LSC has selected agencies has already led to over 1,000 appeals, 500 complaints and 35 judicial reviews being set in motion.  As a result of the incompetence of the selection procedure, the LSC has already been forced by the courts to extend all current legal aid contracts by a month and not begin new contracts already awarded, whilst a solution is sought.

One example of the irrationality of the LSC’s decision making is that agencies where legal aid supervisors worked less than full-time were refused contracts. But the reason many supervisors work part-time is that they are women with child care responsibilities.  This has allowed solicitors firms refused contracts to begin judicial review proceedings on the grounds that the LSC was guilty of sex discrimination in it’s selection procedure.

If the rumours of the demise of legal aid, reported by reputable agencies such as the Legal Action Group, are true then, combined with chaotic contract awards and cuts in funding from local government, we may well see the closure or drastic downsizing of many advice agencies.

At a time when victims of the spending cuts most need free and independent legal advice, it is very possible it will have almost ceased to exist. MPs accused of fiddling their expenses, on the other hand, continue to receive full legal aid to take their attempt to avoid facing a criminal trial all the way to the supreme court.



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