Let’s Not Turn Back the Clock

Welcome to my new blog!

I will posting here frequently — so if you want to read something more than a tweet, this is the place to come!

To start off, I’d like to post a copy of my essay on the coalition’s proposed cuts to legal aid –this appeared in the Western Mail on Wednesday, January 5th 2011.

Legal Aid: Turning the Clock Back

It seems to have escaped many people’s attention, but when it comes to legal aid, the coalition government has alarming plans to turn the clock back.

For the sake of the most vulnerable in society, I certainly don’t want to see this happen. The coalition’s proposals will cause real hardship for real people and will make a mockery of its lofty claims about providing equal access to justice. This simply won’t happen. 

In November, the government issued a Green Paper proposing to cut eligibility to legal aid in civil cases and among the areas excluded from the scope of Legal Help and Help at Court are employment, welfare benefits, family law (unless domestic violence or forced marriage is involved), education, debt disputes (except where the home is directly at risk), and housing cases (except where there is serious disrepair or homelessness is imminent).

In real terms, what does this mean? Who will be affected? Who will lose out?

Well, disabled people will be disproportionately affected – 63% of legal aid clients receiving help in welfare benefits are disabled. Women will also be disproportionately affected, especially in family cases. Disputes with local authorities over the special educational needs of disabled children will not be covered.

Who will advise parents fighting to get their autistic child properly educated? Who will help the woman who believes she’s been dismissed from her job because she’s pregnant, but can’t fight it because she has only been employed for 6 months? Who will advise the client being pursued by a hard-nosed creditor about whether Consumer Credit Act procedures have been followed and whether the agreement is enforceable? Who will advise the family that has been on the council’s housing waiting list for over 5 years and is still living in unsatisfactory housing? Who will advise the claimant who has lost her job through long-term illness and is left without any money because Jobcentre Plus has stopped her benefit because it says she can work?

The fact is that over a half a million people a year are likely to lose access to advice and assistance and, as a society, we stand to lose the heart of something which has, for many years, helped very many people.

When we think of the welfare state set up by the post-war Labour government, the NHS comes to mind. But we often overlook another great reforming measure – the Legal Advice and Assistance Act 1949 – which founded modern ‘legal aid’. This provided full representation from solicitors and barristers for specified civil court proceedings such as divorce and matrimonial disputes. However, it did not cater for areas of law which ordinary people came up against daily – areas like employment, housing, debt, welfare benefits.  

The 1960s saw the advent of tribunals regulating benefits, housing, and employment and this prompted widespread criticism of the failure to meet ordinary people’s legal needs.  Recognising this gap, the Conservative government introduced the ‘Green Form’ scheme in 1972. This enabled solicitors to give advice and assistance to financially qualifying clients on “any matter” under the law of England and Wales. In the 1990s, the Conservative government extended advice-giving to voluntary organisations like CABs and this resulted in a big expansion of specialist advice in social welfare law.

In 2000, the Labour government cut down the number of solicitor firms which could provide help under the scheme (rebranded ‘Legal Help and Help at Court’), with the result that generally only specialist solicitors could give help. With other economies, this led to civil legal aid costs being cut.   

However, even after the international banking crisis with falling public revenues, the Labour Legal Aid Minister, Lord Bach, went out of his way to protect social welfare, recognising that the most vulnerable in our society need this help and that they often face clusters of problems. For example, it is well established that early help on debt management – advice on liability and benefit take-up, help negotiating reasonable arrangements to pay — can avert rent and mortgage arrears and avoid homelessness. Ultimately, such advice saves taxpayers money.

I’m sorry to say that such help is now at risk, however.

And such help is often essential. The late Lord Bingham, a senior judge hugely respected for his knowledge and intellect, described the Housing Benefit Regulations as “far from straightforward” and sympathised with lay persons required to wrestle with them. And anybody involved in the tribunal system knows that an individual’s prospect of success improves dramatically with specialist advice. Expert assistance is invaluable.

The Government says that voluntary organisations will fill the gap. But these are the organisations doing much of the work now funded by legal aid and without it, they will have to severely cut back on services and sack the lawyers they employ.

Advice in a particular locality or region will become hit and miss and we will see “advice deserts” appear. I know that vulnerable people, often with poor levels of education and struggles with literacy, will suffer – they will be completely without access to any specialised and effective help.

We all know that there is no shortage of lawyers to advise on tax avoidance, property acquisition, and inheritance planning. So why should poor people and their legal problems receive less favourable treatment than the well off?

Does this not offend the rule of law?

These proposals will turn the clock back 40 years.

We can’t let that happen.

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About Julie Morgan AM

I was elected as the Labour Welsh Assembly Member for Cardiff North on May 5th 2011. For more information, go to www.juliemorgan.org
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