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‘Nowhere to turn’- Citizens Advice speaks out on impact of legal aid cuts

8 July 2014

Nine out of ten Citizens Advice Bureaux (92 per cent) are finding it difficult to refer people to the specialist legal advice they need since cuts to legal aid came into effect last year, the charity has found.

Citizens Advice is reporting it is now extremely hard to get legal aid around issues such as housing, relationship breakdown or employment disputes. Where limited provision of legal aid remains people have to meet very stringent criteria. The length of time it takes to get legal aid means people’s situations often become far worse than they would have had there been earlier intervention.

In some cases legal aid is now simply not available, such as to help with getting employers to pay outstanding wages or challenging unfair benefit decisions.

Chief Executive of Citizens Advice Gillian Guy will today share this evidence with the Justice Select Committee inquiry into the impact of changes to civil legal aid. Guy will call for a Government strategy on funding of advice, to ensure that people can access the right level of advice, at the right time, in the right way for them.

Citizens Advice also reveals a 62 per cent increase in people seeking online advice about help with legal costs.

Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:

Cuts to legal aid have created an advice gap, stranding people with nowhere to turn. At precisely the time when people’s need for specialist advice on issues such as housing and welfare increased, provision for this support has been slashed.

Modern life presents increasingly complex problems and people need help to understand, adjust to, and in many cases challenge decisions affecting their income, housing and work status.

In a rapidly changing world, where people’s expectations of services are rising, accessing the right advice at the right time will be critical to help people solve problems and understand what government changes mean for them.

In the year before changes introduced under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) came into effect Citizens Advice Bureaux provided specialist advice in approximately 136,000 cases to help people struggling with legal problems. Changes introduced under LASPO have withdrawn support for approximately 120,000 of these cases.

Evidence from bureaux:

Clients can obtain generalist employment advice but are often unable to take things further. Claims against employers often result in the employer being legally represented and the employee left on their own. The complexity of preparing a case is off putting and many clients cannot cope and give up.

CAB in the North West

Benefits appeals are failing as clients are unable to pay for supportive medical evidence and/or are attending on their own without submissions. There have been problems with referring clients to specialist advice to challenge decisions on benefit entitlement and overpayment issues, including assembling specialist medical evidence to support ESA and DLA/PIP claims and preparing cases for appeal.  

CAB in the North West

We did have access to Civil Legal Service funded specialist debt advisers and they were able to help clients to apply for debt relief orders, bankruptcy and offer specialist advice in this area. We were able to triage clients and make best use of this resource combined with our own resources in the bureau. The loss of this service has meant that more clients have had to be referred down self-help routes…and some of these clients have struggled to cope. We have to prioritise vulnerable clients for intensive help in the bureau.

CAB in the South East

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Notes to editors:

  1. The Citizens Advice service comprises a network of local bureaux, all of which are independent charities, the Citizens Advice consumer service and national charity Citizens Advice. Together we help people resolve their money, legal and other problems by providing information and advice and by influencing policymakers. For more see the Citizens Advice website.
  2. The advice provided by the Citizens Advice service is free, independent, confidential, and impartial, and available to everyone regardless of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion, age or nationality.
  3. To find your local bureau in England and Wales, visit citizensadvice.org.uk. You can also get advice online at adviceguide.org.uk
  4. You can get consumer advice from the Citizens Advice consumer service on 03454 04 05 06 or 03454 04 05 05 for Welsh language speakers
  5. Citizens Advice Bureaux in England and Wales advised 2.3 million clients on 5.4 million problems from October 2013 to September 2014. For full 2013/2014  service statistics see our quarterly publication Advice trends
  6. Citizens Advice service staff are supported by more than 21,000 trained volunteers, working at over 3,000 service outlets across England and Wales.