Recent legal aid headlines have been all about the strike by criminal defence lawyers, and campaigners who claim the government’s proposed cuts in legal aid will mean people accused of crimes are denied justice.
But criminal justice is not the only kind of justice. What has attracted less attention from the media – until now at least – are the equally severe cuts affecting the civil legal aid scheme. For ordinary people facing problems with housing, debt or employment, timely and expert legal advice can be just as important for ensuring they receive justice and can get on with their lives.
It may not make for the same of dramatic headlines as a walk-out by the criminal Bar, but advice centres and other providers of social welfare advice around the country are being hit by a triple whammy. They have faced £89m cuts in legal aid; and cash-strapped local authorities are reducing grant funding for advice and legal support by at least a further £40m. All this, at a time when demand for this kind of help is growing, not least because of major changes the government is making in the benefit system.
The Low Commission, which I chaired, has just conducted a year-long investigation into the state of social welfare law provision around the country. It is the biggest independent investigation of its kind. During 2013, our commissioners took evidence from 250 individuals and organisations, and a further 400 people attended our meetings or round table discussions. Our report (published last week) is based on exhaustive research and makes stark reading.
We are calling on political parties of all stripes to recognise the need to tackle these issues before we reach crisis point.
All around the country, we found evidence of advice providers buckling under the strain and ordinary people left with nowhere to turn.
- Gloucestershire has suffered the loss of the Shelter advice centre in Gloucester (nationwide, the housing charity has shut nine such outlets, after losing £3m in legal aid funding); the CAB serving Cheltenham, Tewkesbury and Cotswold has gone into administration. Gloucester law centre is still going, but demand for immigration and debt advice has doubled since last year. Stroud CAB saw debt cases go up by 15%, and benefit cases, by 22% in 2012. In Forest of Dean, benefits cases have gone up by over a third; pay-day loan related problems, by three-quarters.
- Birmingham CAB has lost more than half of its local authority grant (down to £265,000 from £590,000), plus £700,000 in legal aid funding. As a result, 7,500 fewer people were seen last year.
- Even relatively affluent Sutton has not been immune. Its CAB has seen trebling of demand for welfare benefit appeal advice in the last three years.
- In Tameside, near Manchester, local agencies have managed to increase the number of clients they see, but there is a five-week wait for appointments – too long for those already in dire straits – and the help they can give is limited. Only 10% of people whose cases are complicated enough to need a referral to a more specialist agency are able to be referred.
We found that telephone helplines – with one notable and worrying exception – are being overwhelmed by demand. Shelter can answer just 60,000 of its 140,000 calls; only 45% of calls to Citizens Advice are answered. Bucking the trend, however, is the government-run Civil Legal Advice phone line – which anyone seeking legal aid help with certain social welfare cases must call. This service is so poorly promoted and hard for people to find that calls to CLA actually fell in 2013, from 35,000 in April 2013, to 20,000 in July.
All of this leads the commission to conclude that a major rethink is called for to stave off a looming crisis in social welfare law provision.
Among our recommendations are:
- A levy on payday loan companies (to pay for debt advice)
- Replacing the legal aid minister with a cross-departmental post covering advice and legal support;
- Creation of £100m fund to pay for local advice services – £50m from government and £50m from other sources (including interest on solicitor client accounts).
- Political parties to make a manifesto commitment to a five-year national strategy for advice and legal support.
- Restoring legal aid for housing cases.
- Department of Work & Pensions to pay for cost of successful appeals (a staggering 30% of the demand for social welfare law advice results from wrong decisions by government departments).
In these austere times, anyone of us could find ourselves needing this kind of help, we are therefore urging government to take urgent action. Without it, the whole of society, not just those who are debt, will be the poorer.
Lord Low of Dalston, is cross-bencher and well-known disability rights campaigner. He chairs the Low Commission, established by Legal Action Group