Unequal justice….

justice

 From April 2013 650,000 people a year who are currently helped through legal aid will no longer be able to   access this assistance after the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill becomes law. These will be people with common, everyday legal problems such as debt, issues with the benefits system, poor treatment by employers, or experiencing family breakdown and related problems. Their problems will be “out of scope”.

  • From April 2013 legal aid advice on all welfare benefit matters will be abolished.
  • From April 2013 legal aid advice on debt matters will be abolished.
  • From April 2013, the only housing cases which will qualify for legal aid will be those where a person’s home is at “immediate risk,” (such as possession proceedings) or where housing disrepair poses a serious threat to health.
  • From April 2013 legal aid advice on Unfair dismissal employment problems and rights will be abolished. This includes advice on unfair and un-notified sackings, failure to pay proper wages, advice in preparingfor an employment tribunal, tacking would be closing. He did not give any employee workplace disputes, any other advice under employment law.
  • Social welfare law means the law relating to benefits, debt, housing and employment rights. These are issues which will no longer be covered by the legal aid system under the Government’s reforms.
  • Closely connected to social welfare law problems are other legal issues such as immigration status problems or family breakdown.
  • There is already a shortage of supply in the civil legal aid system relative to growing demand.

Legal aid is a cornerstone of an equitable society. This pernicious and draconian Bill will come law in April, it will strip away those rights, it will cause disenfranchisement. People who work in that area are usually committed in giving the powerless a voice and good representation (and not “fat cats”). This is the start of the end for publicly funded advice.

The standards of decision-making made by state institutions can be abysmal. Employers victimise workers. Women escaping violence. Asylum seekers facing state racism. All this on top of the debt and repossessions caused precisely by the attacks on the public sector and welfare state. You need proper advice and legal representation when these things happen to you. From now on most likely you won’t have this advice. The Advice Services Alliance and Law Centres Network will also lose funding, together saving the government £655,317.

April will also see the start of attacks on the benefits system, which will cause more people to turn to advice and they won’t be able to access it. More people will be sanctioned.  It won’t create more relative poverty but absolute destitution. More evictions. More homelessness (you will see the emergence of homeless kids). Because accessing advice will be difficult, impossible. Many advice agencies have experienced savage cuts and have reduced what help they give, cut opening hours and advisers can’t devote the time so it’s a case of “surface scraping”… Outreach services will be a thing of  past.

The attacks on criminal legal aid will mean poorer people won’t get access to good quality legal advice instead it will be the bare minimum (and there’s this appalling myth about “fat cat” living it up on legal aid…). And no doubt there will be more miscarriages of justice. That is a waste of public money an innocent person languishing in prison for a crime they didn’t commit!

Lady Butler-Sloss told the House of Lords that the RJC CAB (The Citizens Advice Bureau at the Royal Courts of Justice) did work of ‘significance and importance’.

Having been a judge in the court for many years, I had personal experience of the advantages of the bureau looking after unrepresented families in my court,’ she said. She asked if Lord McNally, the legal aid minister, understood that taking away its core funding at this time ‘is going to leave the public and the courts in absolute disarray.

As Child Poverty Action (CPAG) argue, removing legal aid for welfare benefits advice will increase already high levels of poverty amongst disabled children and adults

  • Research shows that addressing benefit adequacy and ensuring that all disabled people–particularly the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups – receive their full benefit entitlement reduces poverty and improves health outcomes. Access to advice is essential to maximise take-up of disability benefits. Research shows that the provision of welfare benefits advice in primary care settings leads to an improvement in health.

Furthermore

  • Welfare benefits advice is good value for money:“welfare benefits legal aid cost £28.3million in 2009/10, less than 0.18% of the £16 billion value of unclaimed benefits

With Atos not being fit for purpose, appeals are high (along with success rates) in regards to ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) decisions. And it’s situation like that when advice is paramount especially dealing with the complex bureaucratic benefits system.

  • 55% of social security and child support appeals succeed where the claimant has had advice,help or representation, only 28% succeed without this, a 27% difference.

Looking at demographics, you don’t need to be rocket scientist to work out that it will be poorer areas that will be affected by these draconian changes. Where I live, Bristol, over 4,000 people will experience the impact of these changes and in the surrounding SW areas, it’s estimated 2,000 – 4,000. Overall, Bristol,  benefit income to Bristol is expected to go down by £125 million by 2014-15! Therefore the knock-on effect will be astronomical.

The impact of these attacks will lead to an emergence of an underclass, people who are trapped because of circumstances. But it will ineviably mean the whole of the working class will be savagely hit by this class warfare.

See: Out of Scope, Out of Mind (CAB)

Parliamentary briefing from CPAG (2011) – Legal Aid – benefits advice reduces poverty amongst disabled children

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4 thoughts on “Unequal justice….

  1. For women (and men!) who are victims/survivors of domestic abuse these legal aid cuts could be a matter of life or death. Recourse to civil court action will be stripped away – i.e. access to non-molestation orders, restraining orders, contact orders, occupation orders etc. For domestic abuse victims who have found the courage to take action against their abusers the civil courts can be more effective than criminal courts because of the difference in burden of proof of evidence (civil law being a balance of probablilities rather than beyond all reasonable doubt in criminal law). With the changes in housing benefit payments so that tenants are paid directly, domestc abuse victims and families may face the double trauma of losing their home when abusers may decide to spend the rent on themselves. An occupation order costs about 3 grand and how many could afford £300 or £30 let alone that? Without legal aid there will be more victims of domestic abuse who will die or be seriously harmed. We may need to raise an army of Mackenzies Friends as part of the urgently needed mobilisation of cross-sector workers and communities to fight back against this barbarism of austerity. Thanks for this piece – it’s gone under the radar and needs to be shouted about, loud and passionately!

  2. Another major assault on us with the effective loss of legal rights, let alone justice. My friend who works in family mediation is anticipating hell on earth over this. It’s back to feudalism lurch by lurch.

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