Legal aid cuts will create a justice gap
Every day, Citizens Advice Bureaux (CABx) across the country see people who desperately need legal help with problems like unfair dismissal, incorrect benefit decisions or wrongly charged debts. This means that they can protect themselves from unjust, incorrect or illegal decisions by others. Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, describes the effects the legal aid cuts will have on CABx clients.
Funding dropped for social welfare law
On 1 April, legal aid funding for social welfare law (SWL) was dealt a devastating blow as £450m was deleted from the legal aid budget by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. By the government’s own admission, this means that 645,000 people every year will not be able to access advice and representation and we are concerned that many of those affected will simply have nowhere else to go. Many of our clients will not have access to the specialist legal advice they need to protect their homes, incomes and jobs as 120,000 cases are cut from CABx alone.
Welfare and benefit changes
These problems will be compounded as the very same day that legal aid cuts are brought in, a raft of welfare and benefit changes will leave vulnerable households facing huge changes to their budgets. We are expecting a surge of clients turning to us for help coping with huge changes to their incomes and budgets, just as specialist legal support to tackle complex debt, welfare and employment cases is taken away.
The decimation of legal aid for SWL will create a legal ‘advice desert’ with many people left to interpret complex law and, in extreme cases, represent themselves in court. This requires an in-depth knowledge of the law which very few people without formal legal training have, and in some cases would mean clients arguing with qualified lawyers alone, at a time when they are already under an enormous amount of pressure.
Complexity of some CAB cases
A lot of the cases that bureaux deal with are really complex. They take time to unpick and need expert insight to understand where a person’s problem lies within the law and then challenge any wrong decisions. We recently helped a client who was told that her income support claim was to be stopped on the grounds that she was living with her ex-husband. The client’s ex-husband did occasionally stay with her to help her cope with physical and mental health problems, but as they did not live together, the client qualified for income support. Withdrawing support would have left the client struggling to make ends meet and could have risked exacerbating her health problems. Challenging the Department of Work and Pension’s (DWP’s) decision required a legal-aid funded caseworker to look at the lengthy and complex case-law about the living-together test. In their submission to the tribunal on the client’s behalf, the CAB caseworker contested the DWP’s interpretation of the case-law and provided expert evidence to show that the client did not live with her ex-husband and her income support claim was valid. This is a role that many of our clients will now need to fill themselves and we are gravely concerned that without expert guidance, people like this client will not get the justice they are entitled to.
Legal aid is invaluable because it gives our clients the means to challenge unfair treatment under the law, getting directly to the root of the problem. In this example, receiving specialist advice and casework funded by legal aid meant that our client could convince a judge that the DWP’s decision was wrong in law rather than struggling to survive on unfairly lowered benefits.
Effectiveness of legal aid
Our evidence shows how effective it can be:
•53 per cent of our clients, who had help with benefits under legal aid in 2011/12, received much-needed extra money, and a further 31 per cent were able to manage their finances more effectively.
•One-quarter of our debt clients had some or all of their debts written off, and a huge 75 per cent had their payments rescheduled to make them more affordable.
•42 per cent of housing clients were housed, rehoused or kept their homes.
Cutting these kinds of preventative measures from the legal system will bring a huge human cost to those left struggling with money, employment and housing problems which have reached crisis point. We are also concerned that they will bring a financial cost to the legal system and taxpayer, as they pick up increased costs for dealing with more advanced and complex problems.
Generalist advisers are able to help clients to unpick problems, manage their finances and get the benefits they are entitled to, but when a client has been treated unfairly under the law the most effective help reverses the original wrong decision. If these are allowed to stand, it means that problems will spiral out of control and have devastating long-term effects. Those who have been the victims of incorrect actions should not be left struggling to cope when timely, targeted legal advice can nip problems in the bud.
The legal advice provided by our specialist advisers helps to turn people’s lives around. A CAB client came for advice as she had a mountain of debts, including rent, council tax, gas and electricity arrears, and personal loans and store cards. She felt that she had no choice but to file for bankruptcy, despite the huge impact it would have on her finances for years to come. Over the course of the interview with the CAB adviser, it materialised that her landlord had served her with a notice to leave her property, and that this had not been executed correctly, leaving her at risk of eviction and having a knock-on effect on the rest of her finances. She received specialist legal advice to challenge her landlord’s decision, which gave her greater security and helped to get her finances back on track. The caseworker also discovered that the client had been forced to leave her previous employment as she could not afford to pay for childcare for her son, so carried out a full benefit entitlement check to help her to maximise her income. This case demonstrates how legal aid funding helped to improve people’s lives and to change what, for one client, was going to be a very difficult and turbulent time ahead.
Risk of homelessness
Some legal provision will continue for those who are at risk of homelessness, but clients who need help with any other debt problems will be left without access to legal advice. This could mean that we have people filing for bankruptcy when it could have been avoided and landlords getting away with mistreating their tenants.
There is also a real concern about how people will fare when it comes to challenging unfair decisions made by employers as free, expert help to allow people to stand up to unscrupulous bosses, who sack them without good reason, is to be slashed. In the context of a stagnant labour market, many of those affected will struggle to find new employment at the same level. This could mean a permanent hit to their incomes, pushing people into debt or forcing them to rely more on benefits.
Employers are made accountable for their actions through employment tribunals (ETs). A CAB helped a finance director to get over £20,000 compensation after he was made redundant because of a reduction in sales revenues. As finance director, he could see no evidence that there had been a reduction, and the firm did not comply with the proper redundancy process. He was left in a difficult financial situation, without wages and struggling to pay his mortgage, but the CAB was able to provide legal advice so he could take his case to an ET. When the company would still not pay out, the CAB also helped him to enforce his ET award in the High Court. Without the support of a legal-aid funded caseworker, the client’s employer would have got away with wrongly making him redundant and he would have struggled to make ends meet.
The CAB network helps hundreds of people solve problems with debt, welfare and employment every day, so we understand how important it is that people can access this advice and the devastating impact on those who are left to struggle through the system alone.
A justice gap
We are worried that some of the most vulnerable in our society are facing a justice gap, with poor people unable to challenge unfair and illegal treatment and effectively being shut out of the legal system. This is completely unacceptable and a frightening state of affairs. We will continue to support people through their problems, but the changes mean that there will be far fewer specialist advisers to help people with complex legal issues.
Effects on CAB
Individual bureaux will be affected in different ways, with some able to avoid redundancies or closures and others having to search for replacement funding or rebalance their resources to keep hold of legal aid advisers. However, those who can be retained will not be able to provide the specialist legal advice which many of our clients need, as the funding for this has been wiped out. For some bureaux, the loss of funding is too great to manage without service reductions, meaning a serious hit to the amount of advice available to people in the local community. We will be helping to track the impact of the cuts by giving evidence to the Low Commission, and we are encouraging individual bureaux to provide their evidence too (see page 16 of this issue). Many bureaux have applied for transition funding, but although this may do something to mitigate the worst effects in the short term, it cannot replace ongoing casework provision.
Our clients are facing a turbulent storm as increased pressure on household budgets, huge benefit changes and a difficult labour market happen at the same time that the legal support they need to challenge decisions in these areas is being taken away. Welfare issues are set to come almost completely out of scope concurrent with sweeping changes to a whole raft of benefits that will leave many vulnerable people in desperate need of our help. Debt advice will be severely restricted during a time of frozen incomes and rising prices. In addition, employment support will be cut when we are seeing more people turning to us for help.
Cuts to legal aid will mean that many more people will be left struggling with preventable legal problems. The vast majority of those who will be affected by the cuts are suffering because of the unfair, incorrect or illegal actions of others, and they will now be left without any way of challenging these actions under the law.