In November 2010 the Government announced its plans to reform Legal Aid in England and Wales and a consultation is currently being undertaken by the Ministry of Justice. The proposals set out by the Government are wide reaching and if they go ahead could see an end to access to justice for a vast section on the population.
My name is Juliette Frangos and I am a solicitor working in the not for profit sector, at Chesterfield Law Centre. In the last 3 years I have worked in the areas of debt, immigration, housing and employment law. I have worked under both a Legal Services Commission contract and the Financial Inclusion Fund and am aware of the impact that these provisions have for individuals and communities. I believe that seriously restricting or removing funding for Legal Aid will have a vast detrimental impact on my local community and on society as a whole.
The Government plans to restrict Civil Legal Aid in all but the most serious situations. They plan to remove access to free specialist legal help for employment (other than in cases of discrimination), housing (unless the home is at immediate risk), immigration (other than detention cases), debt (unless the home is at immediate risk), welfare benefits, education and consumer law advice. To prevent the more vulnerable members of society from accessing free legal help with all of these areas of law offends the Rule of Law and the suggestion that individuals will be capable of representing themselves at court hearings and tribunals is likely only to lead to inequality before the law.
We should all be concerned that the Government is thinking of limiting the advice to only those situations where people are engulfed in a severe crisis. It makes no sense to allow people to suffer prolonged distress when they could receive access to specialist advice at an earlier point and potentially avoid the crisis altogether. Early intervention would be more cost effective to the government, not only in terms of providing legal help but also because it would act to prevent increased health service costs, it would lessen the impact on local authority finances and overall allow for greater management of the public purse – reactive measures have repeatedly been shown to be less cost-effective than planned, preventative measures. Without early help, problems become more complex and can cost the public purse more - early advice can save the public purse £10 for every £1 invested.
To illustrate, a common issue within debt advice is that there is not enough early intervention in cases of rent arrears (which often result from the client having multiple non-priority debts to manage, falling victim to unscrupulous lenders, suffering harassment, and perhaps having relationship difficulties or health problems). It is common for the arrears to spiral rapidly out of control and reach the point that the client is facing the threat of eviction. Local Authorities appear to have a blanket policy to proceed regardless of legal position and the result of this combination is often that late intervention incurs additional cost to the public purse and more complex intervention is required by the specialist advisor, including preparation for and attendance at court hearings. In those, similar, situations where intervention has been possible at an earlier stage, cases of this nature are often resolved quickly by reaching agreement with all parties about making payments towards the arrears. The cost of this to the public purse is, in comparison, minute.
There is serious concern that the withdrawal of legal aid funding would lead to many highly vulnerable people not receiving the help they need. The Ministry’s own impact assessment shows that some of the most vulnerable in society would be disproportionately affected by the proposals and could be discriminated against.
People rarely only experience problems in one area of ‘scope.’ Vulnerable people have problems on more than one issue, which are connected to or caused by another problem. It has been shown, for example, that of those suffering serious debt issues, 50% will experience additional health problems, 33% will experience difficulties in their employment and 25% will suffer a breakdown in their relationship with partners or children; proportionately, women are more likely to be affected by these issues than men.
It is ludicrous to think that the most appropriate method of reforming Legal Aid is to create greater hardship and inequality for those worst off in our society. The Government does not appear to understand the needs of the woman with learning difficulties who needs to call into a local agency for advice when she thinks about it because she has built a relationship of trust with them; they do not recognise the requirements of the young person who is homeless, unemployed and has no recourse against injustice because he doesn’t have the ability to access an internet or telephone based advice line; they don’t understand why the old man, who has worked all of his life then spent his savings on paying for his wife’s care needs, is no longer able to afford legal expenses insurance...and even if he could he would be unable to cope with the confusion of dealing with them on the phone.
It is essential that the Government gives greater consideration to the real issues in hand. It is essential that they make use of the vast resources they have available to them in terms of frontline specialist advice agencies who really understand the needs of individuals and communities – these are the people who should be directly consulted with at the earliest possible point in order to formulate solid and workable policies which do not adversely impact on the vulnerable individuals that the Government has a moral duty to protect.
The current consultation on reform remains open until 12 noon on Monday 14th February 2010, Valentine’s Day. All are supposed to be equal in the eyes of the law, if implemented these reforms will ensure the opposite. If you care about the impact of these proposals or even just the moral message which is being given by suggesting them, please let the Government know your thoughts by responding to the consultation here.
Further information on the potential impact of these reforms can be found on the Justice for All website.