At a time when many areas of publicly funded services are being cut or severely diminished, I’d like to discuss one which I think is often left undiscussed. Legal aid is the legal advice and representation given to people who cannot afford to pay for it.
The government is proposing dramatic cuts to the programme, removing many areas of social welfare law from scope. This means that people who require legal help with debt, welfare benefits claims, private family cases (where there is no domestic violence), housing issues (where there is no imminent risk of homelessness), employment, asylum support and immigration will no longer receive it. It is given to the most vulnerable people in society.
In a speech to the Foreign Policy centre on 24th of August 2005, David Cameron said: “I don’t think we need to engage in some protracted exercise to define our shared values. We can do it in a single phrase: ‘Freedom under the rule of law.’” One might agree with this statement. I do not, but I do think that there is something within it that makes us assent to it.
Freedom to live as individuals is incredibly important and, as long as we have a state and other institutions which can do harm, the rule of law is important too. But the primary ingredients to the rule of law are, firstly, that no one is above the law and, secondly, that access to one’s legal rights must be available to all, irrespective of their ability to pay for legal assistance. It is these principles that the legal aid changes will erode.
Examples are helpful to understand the gravity of the issue and I have taken them from a recent report (Unequal Before the Law: The Future of Legal Aid) compiled by three researchers, including ex-Oxford East MP Evan Harris. Consider Mr and Mrs Mansell who were refused pension credit and asked to pay back £11,000 to the Department of Work and Pensions in overpaid pension payments. One can imagine the distress to an elderly couple that this would cause, and the relief that free legal advice to help them with their ultimately successful case would bring. Under the changes they would have received no help or guidance with this complex process.
Consider another: Abbi – a 25 year old graduate from Leeds University – ran up considerable debts, could only find low wage part-time work, and four years after her degree couldn’t pay her £12,000 debts. With no ability to pay for help, legal aid provided her with a solicitor to help her file for a debt relief order, which got the creditors of her back and meant that she could rebuild her life. Again, she would have received no legal aid with her claim had the government’s plans been introduced. Many more examples, which are often more severe than the examples quoted, can be found in the report – which is free online with the link below.
On top of the fact that it is cutting help for legal aid to the most vulnerable people – the elderly, the disabled, the poor – on top of the fact that it will exclude people from gaining access to their legal rights and throwing to the wolves the idea that we are even aiming for a society in which people are equal before the law, these changes will not save money.
Early legal intervention in areas such as housing, welfare benefits claims, employment, debt and private family law prevents situations getting worse. It stops people getting poorer and more in to debt; it stops houses getting in to more disrepair; it prevents cases getting to court; it stops people’s health deteriorating as a result of poor housing or stress related to their problem. All of these will add to the cost of government in other areas. The Citizen’s Advice Bureau has published its research findings about the cost efficiency of legal aid. For every £1 spent on housing advice the state will potentially save £2.34. For every £1 spent on debt advice, the state saves £2.98. For every £1 spent on employment advice the state potentially saves £7.13. For every £1 spent on welfare benefits advice the state potentially saves £8.80.
The primary argument the government is making for their plans is that in these economic times the government has to save money. The government is achieving this by making each department cut its own budget, but departments do not have the foresight to see that a saving for them may well increase costs across government. By implementing these changes the government is defeating its own ends.
There are a vast number of government cuts and other policy changes which we should reject and do our best to argue against. But the purpose of this article is to highlight this important change that is being put through parliament alongside some positive changes to the sentencing guidelines. The majority of the debate will be about placating the right wings of the Labour and Tory parties about these positive changes. Not enough of the debate will be about exposing the injustice, the unfairness and the irrationality of the changes to legal aid.
http://tiny.cc/0vy1v – a brilliant recent article about the changes to legal advice at police stations.
http://www.younglegalaidlawyers.org/ – Young Legal Aid Lawyers
http://tiny.cc/b2p9r – Unequal before the law? The future of Legal Aid
http://www.justice-for-all.org.uk/ – Campaign group on the Legal Aid