Out of scope, out of mind
Who really loses from legal aid reform
Every year over a million people get help from civil legal aid. From April 2013 650,000 people a year who are currently helped through legal aid will no longer be able to access this assistance after the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill becomes law. These will be people with common, everyday legal problems such as debt, issues with the benefits system, poor treatment by employers, or experiencing family breakdown and related problems. Their problems will be "out of scope."
This report tells the story of many such individuals who, over the last 18 months, have sought and obtained help from their local Citizens Advice Bureau, but whose issues will not qualify for free specialist legal help in the future. In most of these cases, it has been CAB specialist caseworkers providing legal aid advice who have helped them resolve their problems.
Specialist advice has become a core part of the CAB service. 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. The appendix shows the scale of casework services that will be lost across England and Wales. And it's not just the Citizens Advice service that will be affected - law centres, independent advice agencies and some solicitors' firms will find it difficult to continue to operate.
But 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 this 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.
A key message from this report is 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.
Chief Executive, Citizens Advice