“I hear a lot of talk about the rule of law but we can’t have the rule of law if people can’t afford the law.”
So said David Blunkett MP, speaking about the coalition’s proposed reforms to legal aid at a rally in Sheffield on 3rd June 2011. Mr Blunkett is not renowned as a bleeding heart liberal lefty, so what got him so fired up?
You might have heard that the coalition is cutting legal aid and shrugged, thinking that doesn’t sound as worrying as them cutting hospitals or schools. The only people who really lose out will be lawyers who are gaming the system and they’re super rich so no problem. I’m not a lawyer, but I can tell you that legal aid is really important. Here’s why.
Thousands of people in Sheffield need legal aid each year, and one day it might be you or me. It helps people pay for representation on a range of matters from debt, welfare problems, housing issues, employment problems and family problems. At the moment legal aid is means tested so you need to be on benefits or earning less than around £17,000 a year to get it. Sheffield will lose free help for 3,495 benefits, debt, employment and housing cases per year if the cuts go ahead, and more in other areas that are under the knife.
The coalition wants to cut £350 million from the legal aid budget, despite protests from over 5,000 individuals, charities and organisations. They plan to remove whole areas of advice from the scope of funding and tighten up the means test. Their own estimates suggest that this will result in over half a million people losing access to advice. A 17-year-old mechanic paid £150 at 70p an hour for his first month’s work on the pretence that those 50-hour weeks count as ‘training’ won’t be able to claim legal aid to challenge his employer. An eight-year-old orphan brought to the UK on a fake Congolese passport won’t receive public funds to help establish his status as a victim of trafficking. A 27-year-old soldier who lost a leg in Afghanistan won’t get help to claim back disability benefit wrongly reduced when he admitted he could stagger 400 metres. Or imagine a family where the mother lost her job and they are now using credit cards to pay their mortgage each month, who finds her partner is suddenly to be made redundant. They won’t be able to get legal aid to help with debt problems until the bank is ringing up to repossess the house.
The Government says the charity advice sector (like Citizens Advice) can take up these cases, but what makes this impossible is that these organisations are suffering just as much. Many local advice centres in Sheffield have (you guessed it) legal aid contracts which they will lose. They also rely upon local authority support. Sheffield City Council’s funding settlement from central government means they are having to pass cuts down to organisations they support. You might have noticed that your local advice service has already reduced its opening hours in response.
Whipped MPs passed the bill through the House of Commons very quickly. So in the typically bizarre British way, we are now relying on the unelected House of Lords to defend a pillar of democracy. This all sounds pretty bleak but there are organisations who are continuing to campaign against the reforms and for an alternative. Sheffield Justice for All is part of a national coalition. In Sheffield our Justice for All and Young Legal Aid Lawyers groups have held rallies, got the City Council to support our campaign, held regular vigils to inform people about the changes and undertaken research with local MPs to find out about unmet legal need in constituency work. We’re going to be talking in community venues over the next few months and helping to lobby peers in the House of Lords so they realise how important this issue is.
And we’ve had some success. Justice for All campaigners saved the Financial Inclusion Fund from being cut, which funds charitable advice centres to help people with debt problems. Justice for All also got the government to announce a £20 million fund to support advice services and commit to a review about their future funding. However, the threat of a £350 million cut still looms large and we need you to help increase the pressure. Otherwise, as campaigner Geraldine O’Connor said: “If the government takes away free legal aid, it will be one law for the rich, one law for the poor. This is intolerable in a so-called democracy.”