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Legal aid cuts will leave half a million with nowhere to turn - Citizens Advice

14 February 2011

Legal aid cuts will lead to a catastrophic reduction in the amount of help available to vulnerable people with complex legal problems, and will impact on the capacity of the Citizens Advice Bureau network to maintain services at a time of growing need, Citizens Advice warned today.

In its response to the government’s consultation on legal aid reform, which closes today, the national charity says that if the cuts go ahead half a million people with complex debt, benefit, housing, employment and other problems will no longer be entitled to legal aid and will be unable to get the free, independent advice they desperately need to resolve them.

As part of a package to reduce the legal aid budget by £350 million, legal aid will no longer be available for most social welfare law advice, and already stringent eligibility criteria will be tightened further.

Citizens Advice Bureaux currently deal with over 20 per cent of all publicly funded legal aid cases in the areas of welfare benefits, debt, housing and employment.  If the cuts go ahead as planned, they, along with other voluntary sector providers, will lose up to 92 per cent of their funding for the provision of specialist advice on legal matters.

In a survey of 106 Citizens Advice Bureaux in December 2010, over half said that the proposed legal aid cuts would pose a real risk to the continuation of their local advice service as a whole.

Citizens Advice Chief Executive Gillian Guy said:

“We are deeply concerned that planned cuts to legal aid will seriously damage access to justice for our clients, and seriously damage our ability to provide specialist advice for the most vulnerable. Every year thousands of our clients need help from civil legal aid services at moments of real need. If people can’t access legal help, the consequences can be dire – spiralling debt, homelessness, family breakdown, domestic violence, depression.

“Continuing economic uncertainty, cuts to public services and the biggest shake-up of welfare benefits for decades are all certain to generate an increased need for advice on social welfare law issues in the coming months and years. If the legal aid cuts go ahead, many of the most vulnerable members of our society will be overwhelmed by devastating problems because they will have nowhere to turn for help.

She added:

“We recognise the need for significant savings in the legal aid system, but we believe this could be better achieved by reforms to reduce demand on the legal system and to cut down on costly bureaucracy. If legal aid no longer provides for social welfare legal advice then an alternative resource must be identified.”

Citizens Advice warns that limiting the scope of issues with which legal aid-funded advisers can help means they will not be able to solve people’s problems fully, or at an early stage before they become critical. It argues that this is a false economy, since every £1 invested in early advice potentially saves the state up to £8.80.

The charity says that withdrawing legal aid from most areas of social welfare law will lead to a significant increase in far more serious problems for both citizens and the state. It warns that the alternative sources of advice cited by the government are simply not available, suitable or accessible for the overwhelming majority of those who need them, and that voluntary and pro bono services do not have the capacity to fulfil the need currently met by legal aid.

Gillian Guy continued:

“We are very concerned that the government is pressing ahead with these proposals despite the findings of its own impact assessment, which point to a disproportionately detrimental effect on access to advice for the poor and vulnerable, the undermining of the not-for-profit sector, and a number of serious negative wider social and economic impacts. There needs to be a fundamental rethink of legal aid reform in the light of this evidence.”

In its submission to the Ministry of Justice, Citizens Advice proposes a number of alternative ways of reducing legal aid costs, including:

  • A levy on consumer credit lenders to supplement government funding for debt advice
  • Rationalising the four existing workplace enforcement bodies into a single fair employment agency, thereby reducing employment problems requiring advice or going to tribunal
  • Improving decision making by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), thereby reducing the need for advice on benefit issues
  • Identifying resources beyond the Legal aid budget to continue social welfare advice.

Citizens Advice is supporting the Justice for All Campaign (www.justice-for-all.org.uk) which calls for adequate funding for Legal Aid to be maintained to ensure that people are treated fairly under the law no matter who they are, how much money they have or where they live

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.