Restrictions 'threaten access to justice': Lord Mackay is challenged on legal-aid cuts in the High Court today. Adam Sage reports

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Indy Politics
KEVIN BRYAN locked his hands together as if in prayer as he explained why he had seen a solicitor to try to prevent his eviction from the home in which he has lived for five years.

Liverpool city council had given him a week's notice to leave, he said, telling him to move into an eighth-floor flat in Toxteth. He had objected, pointing out that the flat was unfurnished, that he had no money with which to decorate it and that his dogs would be unable to live there. To no avail.

'I was seeing my doctor and I just broke down in the surgery,' Mr Bryan said. 'The doctor rang and got me an appointment with the solicitor.'

Seven weeks ago, he would have been entitled to help with the costs of his case. But, on 12 April, as part of a package of legal aid cut-backs, the Government restricted free advice to people earning less than pounds 61 per week if they are single and slightly more if they have children.

Mr Bryan lives alone and draws invalidity benefit of about pounds 90 per week following a recent suicide attempt, so he is now expected to fund his lawyer's bills himself. At a minimum rate of pounds 43 an hour and with no savings to call upon, this was out of the question, Mr Bryan said.

His fingers pushing nervously together, he added: 'Ten pounds an hour would be a non-starter. I have an overdraft, a loan from the building society and try to find about pounds 3 a week to entertain myself.'

He accepts that he must leave his present home, which was tied to a former job looking after pensioners, but says of his new flat: 'There are no locks on the door, nothing on the floors, no toilet seat and the cupboards have been ripped out. I would not put my worst enemy in it.'

In a sense, however, he is fortunate. His lawyer, Jayne O'Hanlon, is advising him for nothing, and has persuaded the council to postpone the eviction. She has also urged the local authority to find 'more appropriate' accommodation and asked for a social security grant with which Mr Bryan could buy some furniture.

But how long can Ms O'Hanlon's practice continue to provide a free service? The question meets with a shrug from Elkan Abrahamson, a partner at the firm, Edwards Frais Abrahamson.

For Mr Bryan and his lawyer, much depends on a High Court hearing today when the Law Society is attempting to challenge the legal aid cut-backs. The society will argue that the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, has a duty to ensure that people of 'moderate means' have access to justice, a duty he ignored when he introduced the restrictions last month. Pointing out that the number of clients receiving civil legal aid will fall by about a third this year, the society will ask for the measures to be declared unlawful. For his part, Lord Mackay will say that, as a Cabinet minister, he was obliged to restrain a legal aid budget that already tops pounds 1bn a year and would have doubled by the mid- 1990s without the package he brought forward.

From her home in Sidcup, Kent, Heather is unlikely to follow the technicalities of today's arguments but she knows that the result will be of great significance to her.

On 28 April, she approached her solicitor after receiving a letter from her husband requesting a divorce only to be told that she no longer qualified for free legal advice.

Heather, who asked not to be identified further, said that she had a part-time job with a salary of pounds 64 a week, was sent pounds 80 a week by her husband and pounds 18.10 by the Department of Social Security, putting her well above the pounds 61 limit. Out of this income, she must pay for the children, fund a mortgage of pounds 170 a month and meet other household bills.

According to her solicitor, Rosemary Guest, of Sidcup, Kent, Heather will get help with some aspects of the divorce but is nevertheless likely to face bills of pounds 300 to pounds 400, all but wiping out her life savings of pounds 470. Before the cut-backs she would have paid pounds 51.

'It's crazy. It just seems so unfair,' Heather said. 'I thought this Government was interested in the family but the recession has already put pressure on people's homes. Now they come and cut the help as well.'

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