The Coalition’s snappily named Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill will be debated in the House of Commons tomorrow. Now, as an opening sentence, I appreciate that that wasn’t the most inspiring you’ll ever have read, or even that I’ve ever written, but stick with me. Legal Aid isn’t glamorous, but it does matter.
I’m going to witter on about civil legal aid, and I have to start by declaring a possible bias. The last 6 years of my career have been largely spent in Citizens Advice Bureaux so I do have a bit of an interest in how civil legal advice services are provided and paid for.
Essentially at the moment, if you have a sufficiently low income you can get legal aid for advice on debt, housing, welfare benefits, and employment issues (amongst a whole host of other stuff – I’m concentrating on the areas where my expertise lies). This isn’t money that you as the person getting advice ever see – it is claimed by your advice provider and, for these areas of law, is generally paid at a fixed rate whatever the complexity of the advice you require. Some clients will receive only advice, but many will also be assisted with practical actions like negotiating repayments with creditors, applying for bankruptcy, appealing an incorrect benefit decision, or challenging liability for a debt.
Under the new proposals, there will be no legal aid available for welfare benefits cases or employment, and housing and debt advice will only be funded where there is an immediate risk of a client losing their home. This seems to me to be insane for a whole set of reasons.
Firstly, think about a situation where you’re in a medium amount of debt. You’re managing to pay your rent, but you’re behind with the utilities. Your credit cards are spinning out of control. Maybe you have a personal loan for a car that you’re struggling to pay. People find themselves in this situation for all sorts of reasons. The loss of a job, a sudden health problem, the loss of a partner, or simply spending more money that they have in their bank accounts. The point is that it happens, and when it happens people can find themselves bombarded with different advice and information from a whole set of people who either don’t have a clue themselves or are completely biased. So your bank says, “Take a consolidation loan.” Your credit card company threatens to send in bailiffs so you feel pressured to pay them first. Your utility company offer to install a prepayment meter to stop you getting further behind, but the tarriff looks much higher than you’re paying at the moment. Your mate says, “I borrowed from this website. They’re brilliant… oh, I’m not sure what this interest is, but they give you the money really fast.” What you need is some impartial advice, so where do you go? Maybe your local CAB or Law Centre or an Advice UK centre in your area? And what if they said, “Sorry, we can’t help you until you stop paying your rent, and your house is at risk”? That doesn’t sound like the best approach to me, but looking at the new Legal Aid proposals, that seems to be what the government is advocating. Good advice is very often about avoiding a crisis; in the new system you need to be having a crisis before any advice or assistance can be offered.
Welfare Benefits is another area of law where the coalition bill cuts provision. Actually, it basically gets rid of Legal Aid funded advice in welfare benefits alogether. The rationale here seems to be that the benefits system is significantly straightforward for people to navigate themselves. This is a belief that can only possibly have come from a group of people who have never had to worry themselves about actually applying for or living on a benefit in their lives. The British benefits system is labyrinthine in it’s complexity. The “basic” textbook on the subject used by most advice agencies (CPAG’s rather weighty Welfare Benefits and Tax Credits Handbook) runs to 1500 pages and is by no means a compete overview of the subject. And the Department of Work and Pensions, who administer the bulk of the system are by no means above confusion themselves. So where they make an error and refuse a benefit incorrectly, good advice on how to appeal is essential. This isn’t a luxury. This is about people’s basic rights and entitlements to a subsistence level of income.
To take the example of Employment and Support Allowance, which is paid to people with reduced capacity for work because of health problems. It has been estimated that around 40% of claimants who are refused benefit have it reinstated on appeal. The appeals process can be daunting and requires detailed evidence of claimant’s health conditions. To suggest that vulnerable claimants, some with multiple complex health issues, should navigate the process without advice is, at best, naive. At worst, it’s a cynical attempt to cut the benefits budget by discouraging claims and appeals.
We live in a country where access to certain basic services is accepted as a right, and we are immensely lucky to be in that situation. We expect our children to have access to education. We expect to be able to access healthcare. Changes to those basic services are highly controversial and, rightly, hotly debated. Somehow, we don’t seem to view access to justice and access to advice as having the same level of importance.
I’ve heard politicians characterising legal aid as a scheme for putting money into the pockets of already wealthy solicitors, and suggesting that, in true Big Society style, the voluntary sector is ready and waiting to fill in the gaps. That’s absolutely not my experience. Much of the sort of work I’m describing is already done in the voluntary sector. Voluntary sector doesn’t mean free. Even volunteers need buildings, resources, heat, light, supervision, training, administration. A lot of the work described is highly specialist, and to ensure continuity of service and the required level of expertise, very often has to be done, at least in part, by paid workers.
The main reason a lot of this work is already done in the voluntary sector is that legal aid funding doesn’t allow for much (any!) profit margin. It’s only practical if you are operating on a not-for-profit basis. And these cuts will hit the not-for-profit sector hard. The Minstry for Justice has estimated that the voluntary sector will lose 97% of its current legal aid funding. That’s potentially catastrophic for free advice services across the country. You may never have needed to use one of those services. You may be in a position where you can afford to pay for a solicitor, but not everyone is, and I don’t believe in a society where justice is only available to the rich.
There’s lots of other worrying stuff in this bill – potential cuts to no-win, no-fee agreements jump out. The potential effects on victims of domestic violence are another big concern. If you agree that this is a worry, there is still stuff you can do. You can contact your MP directly – you should be able to find their details here: http://findyourmp.parliament.uk/. You can either ask them to vote against the bill altogether, or perhaps support one of the Lib-Dem amendments which aim to protect legal aid for the most at-risk people.
You may not agree with me. You may think that the level of austerity cuts needed justifies these changes. You’re wrong, but totally entitled so to be. And so, I shall desist.
Come back later in the week (or, you know, maybe next week) when I’ll be getting all sci-fi/fantasy-ish and reviewy. I’ve got books by Neil Gaiman, Jasper Forde and Kate Johnson on my “just read” pile and I’ll be telling you what I thought about them all. From legal aid to fantasy fiction in a single bound. As ever, if you like eclectic in your bloggers, do feel free to subscribe.