By the end of this week, we’ll know the fate of shocking proposals that threaten to radically reduce access to justice for the poorest and most vulnerable in England and Wales.
750,000 citizens a year will no longer get free advice on everyday problems – like debt, employment or housing – that can be fiendishly tricky in legal terms. This isn’t about opposing cuts. What Peers from across the House oppose is a misguided policy that will end up costing society and the state more than the Treasury saves.
At the moment Legal Aid funds advice on debt, housing, benefits, employment law, and education rights. This advice is primarily delivered through Citizens Advice Bureaux, Law Centres, and other charities. No lawyer doing this work is a “fat cat”.
The benefits can be critical in people’s lives. Clients generally come forward with multiple problems. Their marriage broke down, they became depressed, lost their job, were wrongly refused benefits, got into debt and are can’t pay rent. It doesn’t take much to imagine a year in which everything just goes wrong – it just spirals. If you can quickly help that person to access the benefits safety net, resolve their debt issues, sort out the landlord by taking advantage of protections in the law, then you can stop that spiral. One that ends in mental and physical health problems, homelessness and the State having to step in, at high cost, to resolve far more serious issues right at the end. The Government know this; they admit in their Impact Assessment that this legislation if passed will lead to “reduced social cohesion, increased criminality…[and] increased costs for other Departments.”
So why do it? It won’t save money. We spend £64m a year on these areas of law but this will be swamped by the extra cost to other state agencies – local authorities, Work and Pensions, Health, and even the MoJ – that will have to pick up the pieces. Independent econometric analyses by Citizens Advice and Kings College confirm this. It is economically foolish to make 53% cuts to Social Welfare and only 8% to Criminal Legal Aid. Not to mention unconstitutional and just plain immoral to deny the poorest the means to assert their rights.
This should not be a Party issue. Tories, Labour and Liberals have always supported Social Welfare law. It’s not too late for the Government to pull back. But if it will not, then the House of Lords must make it think again.
Lord Willy Bach, Shadow Justice Minister