Legal aid cuts will make it almost impossible for many Citizens Advice Bureaux to carry on providing specialist advice, leaving tens of thousands of people with nowhere to turn with serious but everyday legal problems that could see them homeless, jobless and without any income, a new report warns today.
Writing in the introduction to the report on who really loses from legal aid reform, Citizens Advice Chief Executive Gillian Guy says that abolishing legal aid for issues such as welfare benefits, debt, most housing problems and employment will have a devastating impact on the capacity of the CAB service to provide specialist advice and casework,.
The warning comes as the Legal aid, sentencing and punishment of offenders bill reaches its final stages in the House of Lords.
“Specialist advice has become a core part of the CAB service,” says Gillian Guy.
“Our frontline caseworkers and managers have told us that the impact of the proposed changes to legal aid on specialist services will be devastating. The overwhelming majority say that it will be impossible to provide a specialist service, whilst over half say that it may be impossible to continue providing any advice service at all.”
Out of scope, out of mind* tells the stories of some of the many thousands of clients who have sought advice and been helped by their local CAB in the last 18 months, but whose problems will not qualify for free legal help in future. In most cases it has been CAB specialist legal aid advice which has helped them resolve their problems.
Gillian Guy writes:
“Our real concern is how these types of problems will be resolved if specialist casework services are no longer available. The vulnerability of the clients in the cases outlined in the report is striking. Serious cases of unmanageable debt, refusal of benefits and unfair dismissal will simply get worse. And the worse these problems get, the greater the cost for public services and the economy.”
She says the report shows conclusively that early intervention and casework funded by legal aid works. “In the absence of free legal advice, the risk is that these individuals will not only be out of scope, but out of mind.”
From April 2013, social welfare law will be taken ‘out of scope’ of legal aid. This means legal aid advice will be abolished for all welfare benefit matters, debt, employment and all housing cases except those where a person’s home is at “immediate risk” or where housing disrepair poses a serious threat to health. Legal aid advice on issues involving immigration status and family breakdown will also be abolished, except where detention, domestic violence, child protection or state childcare are involved.
Cases described in the report include the following:
A couple came to the CAB for debt advice after their business failed and they became unemployed. They had both business and personal debts, including tax debts, business rate arrears, rent arrears on their home, and they had also taken out a loan secured by a bill of sale on their car. They had two county court judgments against them, one of which was being enforced by bailiffs, increasing the debt with fees and charges. Dealing with the failure of their business and negotiating with their creditors was causing considerable stress and worry. The CAB helped them draw up a financial statement, negotiated a small monthly payment towards the business rate debt and £3.40 per week towards their rent arrears, thereby stopping any possession claims or other problems with their tenancy. The CAB also helped them apply to the county court to vary the terms of the county court judgments so they could repay the debts in small affordable amounts. Without help from a caseworker funded by legal aid, the couple would not have been able to negotiate affordable payments to their creditors, prioritise which creditors need to be dealt with first or ask the court to vary the terms of the court order.
An agency worker whose income fluctuated from week to week according to the number of hours she worked had got into debt as a result. She tried to make ends meet by using payday loans, but because the payday lenders deducted money directly from her bank account, she built up arrears on other commitments, including rent, council tax and fuel. She was in danger of losing her house for rent arrears, faced a committal hearing for non-payment of council tax, disconnection of her fuel supply and court action from non-priority creditors. She had been persuaded by creditors to prioritise payments to her credit debts over her rent and council tax arrears even though she was at risk of losing her home or being imprisoned. Her creditors had threatened to send the bailiffs round even though they had no power to do so. She had also been pushed into agreeing to pay off her rent arrears in large instalments she could not afford. Following advice from her local CAB’s debt advice project which was funded by legal aid, she was able to make affordable repayment arrangements with all her creditors and avoid going to court about her rent arrears.
A council tenant accrued rent arrears after losing his job. Vulnerable and unable to pay his rent, he felt he had no option but to surrender his tenancy. He then realised that this had been a rash decision which could make him homeless and so came to the CAB for advice. The bureau’s specialist adviser contacted his housing officer to retract the surrender of his tenancy and helped him apply for pension credit to maximize his income. The adviser also managed to successfully negotiate affordable repayments off the client’s rent arrears. As a result of the advice he received, he was able to stay in his home and pay off his rent arrears.
A 66 year old man had been employed by a small manufacturing company for 15 years without a written contract. His employment was transferred twice (under the same verbal terms and conditions), most recently in 2005. He was employed as a financial director and reported to the managing director of the firm. He was then told that he was ‘going to have to be let go’ due to a reduction in sales revenues. As finance director, he could see no evidence that this was the case, and the firm did not comply with the proper redundancy process. Left in a difficult financial situation without wages and struggling to pay his mortgage, he sought legal advice from the CAB who helped him to take his case to an employment tribunal which found in his favour. The employer, who had ignored all proceedings to date, appealed the decision but the judge rejected the appeal and awarded the client over £20,000 compensation. The CAB also helped him to enforce his tribunal award in the high court as his employer would not pay the award. All this would not have been possible without the support of a legal aid funded caseworker.