General Election 2017: Why Legal Aid cuts are not a sexy subject

Greater Manchester Law Centre (GMLC) will continue the fight for free access to justice with an even louder voice.

On Thursday 8th June vote for a candidate who will stand for a welfare and justice system that works for those most in need.

 

#GE2017 survey result

Legal Aid: National parties and their manifestos

During this period we studied the manifestos of four parties. As did the Law Centre Network, which has a neat summary of some of the results (see appendix).

The Labour Party introduces many changes/reversals to LASPO (Legal Aid, Sentencing, Punishment of Offenders Act 2012) and the Liberal Democrats, who helped  introduce it during the coalition propose an ‘urgent and comprehensive review’ of its effects.

There is nothing concrete from the Conservative Party, apart from one mention of legal aid, a promise to restrict it for ‘unscrupulous law firms’ suing the armed forces. There is nothing on the Green Manifesto on legal aid, but a comprehensive view on housing and the rental market.

In addition to sending out our survey to Greater Manchester candidates we asked party leaders to send their parties’ commitment to the issues we raise.

Neither Theresa May, Tim Farron, or the co-leaders Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley answered.

Please find below an extract of Jeremy Corbyn’s letter to the Chair of Greater Manchester Law Centre, John Nicholson.

” Dear John,
… For those in the legal profession, this change is urgently needed. Seven years of Tory Governments has seen an assault on our justice system: with  access to justice severely limited, the role of courts in scrutinising the decisions of the authorities deliberately curtailed and now human rights legislation a target.

A fair, accessible and effective justice system is a public good which benefits everyone. One of my first actions as Leader of the Party was to ask Lord Bach to conduct a commission of inquiry into access to justice. That critical work will inform future policy. In Government, Labour will restore legal aid to its rightful place asa a fourth pillar of the welfare state and fulfil our Party’s longstanding commitment to abolishing the Tories’ unfair employment tribunal fees. …

In solidarity. All the best, Jeremy”

 

Greater Manchester election candidates

Over the last few weeks we asked those Greater Manchester candidates we could reach, from the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green Parties, for their commitment to free access to justice.

The topics we raised included restoration of Legal Aid, adding immigration again to the scope, stopping draconian sanctions on benefit claimants, especially for people with disabilities and thus reducing the hardship they experience, improving enforceable rights for tenants in social housing and ensuring funding of free and accessible provision of legal advice and representation in Greater Manchester.

We hear that people like to read numbers and statistics. We could proudly tell you that almost 100% of respondents agreed with all of our demands and some took the time to share their thoughtful comments.

But we are speaking about altogether 15 respondents of 96 we wrote to.

We could show you well designed graphs to show the split between the parties and contributions for all ten Greater Manchester boroughs.

Instead we just say a heartfelt thank you to the six Green, five Labour and four Liberal Democrat candidates for their participation.

Please see all answers and contributions at the end of this introduction.

No Conservative candidate responded to the survey.

Only Fiona Green, Conservative candidate for Wythenshawe and Sale East, answered our email with the link to the survey to state that her priority is to “increase funding for Law Centres”.

 

Why we need to talk

The shift from discussing Brexit as the main topic during this election period to how government and we as a society organise welfare, employment security, housing health, mental health and education has been vital.

But along with those priorities plus security and the rule of law after the tragic attacks in the past weeks, access to justice seems like a long lost poor cousin in a society that becomes increasingly unfair.

The right to justice is as important as the right to health or education.

In the 1980s, around 80% of households were eligible for civil legal aid, but by 2008 that figure had dropped to 29.5%. LASPO (Legal Aid, Sentencing, Punishment of Offenders Act 2012) has further worsened the situation by removing most cases involving housing, welfare, debt, immigration, employment and medical negligence law from the scope of legal aid.*

Halving the legal aid budget since 2010, closure of courts, employment tribunal fees implemented in 2013 (67% drop in individual cases within less than a year), lack of education about legal rights (nearly 50% of who experience legal problems think it’s bad luck) and a really difficult system for applicants to get legal aid (vitally impossible to navigate for some claimants, especially for disabled people), means that hundreds of thousands are now going without the legal aid they require.*

For many, law centres provide the only means for free,
 high-quality legal advice and representation. Quite simply, no representation means no access to justice.

That is why we asked our questions to candidates and encouraged our supporters to do the same.

 

Why we need to fight for free access to justice

We are a small organisation amongst a number of charities and community projects in the Greater Manchester area that provide services desperately needed.

We need to continue with our work, but equally we need to educate about the situation and be a loud voice to continue our fight.

GMLC services volunteers are at the front line of tackling what legal aid cuts and failed capability assessments do to people.

There are so many cases where people have been refused Personal Allowance Payment (PIP) or Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and alone between October 2013 and December 2015 appeals against DWP determinations (following mandatory reconsideration) increased by 56%.*

In spite of Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green criticising last year the portrayal of job centre staff in Ken Loach’s film “I, Daniel Blake” as “monstrously unfair” (although he had not seen the film at the time he made the comment), we are dealing with exactly those cases.


GMLC case study

A 63 year old man with a heart condition failed the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) Work Capability Assessment and was found fit for work in August 2016. He came to the Law Centre for help with his appeal in November 2016 having already lodged his appeal. He had not claimed any benefits in the interim and we advised that he could reclaim the basic rate of ESA whilst he waited for his appeal hearing – he told his advisor that he had rent arrears and had lived off credit from his local corner shop. 

The Decision Maker had awarded nil points. He attended an appeal in February 2017 represented by GMLC. Supporting evidence was obtained from a specialist nurse at his local hospital who knew his condition well and the severity of his condition. The tribunal decided that he was not fit for work and placed him into the Support Group, designed for the most severely ill, on the basis that there was a substantial risk to his health if he were found capable of Work Related Activity.

A few weeks after the appeal he returned to the Law Centre as he had had a letter asking him to attend a mandatory Work Focused interview – clearly the decision had not been implemented properly. We asked his local MP to make representations on his behalf, which she did. A month later the DWP informed the MP that the client had died.


Your vote counts – it’s your voice for fairness

You will vote for your candidate in your local area. Vote for the candidate who will stand up for a welfare and justice system that serves the needs of Greater Manchester residents.

 

To the candidates

You might wake up on Friday morning as the chosen parliamentary representative for your constituency. During the busy election period you might not have had the time to consider free access to justice.

But when your work starts you will meet many people in your surgery for whom you are the last resort in a broken system, which lets down the most vulnerable. You will have to intervene and support.

We ask you to step up right away and address the situation in parliament at every opportunity.

 

* Information from “The crisis in the justice system in England & Wales. THE BACH COMMISSION ON ACCESS TO JUSTICE. Interim report | November 2016”.

If you have any questions or comments about our work on our election survey, please contact the GMLC development workers.

 


Answers and comments to our survey

Questions

1) If elected to the Westminster Parliament, would you vote for the restoration of legal aid, that has been severely cut and restricted by the Legal Aid, Sentencing, Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) and implemented by the Legal Aid Agency since?

2) Draconian sanctions have been imposed on benefit claimants. Would you be willing to speak and vote against these?

3) Benefit restrictions have particularly affected people with disabilities? Would you be willing to learn more about these and speak in Parliament about the hardships, which they have caused to individuals in need?

4) Would you vote for improved and enforceable rights for tenants, in “social housing” and in private rented accommodation?

5) Would you vote to ensure that “immigration” was restored to the “scope” of legal aid, so that there would be effective legal advice and representation for people with human rights claims, people seeking to appeal against deportation and people seeking to be (re)united with their families from abroad?

6) Specifically, locally, would you be willing to use your voice to ensure the funding of free and accessible provision of legal advice and representation in your own constituency, whether through local or Greater Manchester services?

The candidates in their own words organised by Greater Manchester boroughs.

Bolton respondents

Conservatives: 0 of 3
Labour: 1 of 3
Liberal Democrats: 1 of 3
Greens: 0 of 2

Julie Hilling, Labour Party candidate, Bolton West
1) Yes
The restriction of access to justice without the means to pay for it is wrong and means that justice is not served.
2) Yes
When I was MP for Bolton West from 2010 to 2015 I regularly spoke out against unreasonable and unjust sanctions.
3) Yes
Again, I regularly spoke out about the affect of policy on the disabled, using the examples brought to me by my constituents. I was accused by the Minister of “scaremongering” when I raised the issue of deaths and suicides of people found fit to work when they clearly weren’t. The situation has of course worsened recently with the further £30 cut to some benefits.
4) Yes
5) Yes
6) Yes

Rebecca Forrest, Liberal Democrat candidate, Bolton West
1) I have not yet decided.
As a party there are certain areas in which we would implement an immediate restoration whilst the rest would be subject to an urgent and immediate review.
2) Yes
3) Yes
4) I have not yet decided.
It is such a broad ask I would need more information on the proposals but I am not against the enhancement of tenants rights in principle.
5) Yes
6) Yes

Bury respondents

Conservatives: 0 of 2
Labour: 0 of 2
Liberal Democrats: 1 of 2

Andrew Page, Liberal Democrat candidate, Bury South
1) Yes
I have experience of the effects of LASPO.
2) Yes
Indeed – and each of these claimants is a real person with real needs. I know some of them, and how ill-conceived and unfair these sanctions can be. I have spoken against them and will continue to do so.
3) Yes
Agreed. Again, I have first-hand experience of how damaging these restrictions have been for people with disabilities. I would be interested in hearing from people who have had experience of this and learn about their individual needs and concerns.
I have been personally shocked by the difficulties some people with mental health problems have had in even having their disability recognised. I am more than willing to speak up, in parliament and elsewhere, to further understanding and to challenge the thinking and rhetoric behind these discriminatory restrictions.
4) Yes
I’m a social housing tenant. I understand the value of social housing.
I’ve also been a private tenant and (to say this diplomatically) experienced personally the need to improve tenants rights.
I hope Parliament will be debating issues surrounding tenants’ rights and social housing in the near future, and if I were to be elected I would vote to support improved tenants rights and to empower local authorities and social housing associations.
5) Yes
It is a travesty – not to mention a social injustice and a crime against some of the most vulnerable sections of society – that immigration is outwith the scope of Legal Aid. I would definitely vote for it to be restored – again, having worked for the LAA I have well-formed opinions based on professional experience, but I cannot express these publicly.
6) Yes
Yes – access to justice is a right, not a privilege.

Manchester respondents

Conservatives: 0 of 5 (only 4 reached)
Labour: 0 of 5
Liberal Democrats: 1 of 5
Greens: 1 of 5

Laura Bannister, Green Party candidate, Manchester Withington
1) Yes
Legal Aid is an absolute necessity for justice, as it helps to prevent wrongful convictions, and empowers people to use the court system to protect themself regardless of their economic situation. It is appalling that this has been cut. The Green Party will certainly continue to fight for legal aid to be restored.
2) Yes
Benefit sanctions are harsh, counter-productive and they drive people into poverty. The growth of food bank use has been largely driven by benefit sanctions. We need an immediate end to benefit sanctions, and pilots of Basic Income programmes need to begin in the UK to explore this more secure and dignified option.
3) Yes
The Conservative government has attacked disabled people on every front, cutting their services and benefits, and trying to force them into unsuitable employment. Disabled people must not be used as a scapegoat by the government to excuse public service cuts. We are a rich society and with fair taxation we can choose to have decent public services and benefits for all.
Agreed. Again, I have first-hand experience of how damaging these restrictions have been for people with disabilities. I would be interested in hearing from people who have had experience of this and learn about their individual needs and concerns.
I have been personally shocked by the difficulties some people with mental health problems have had in even having their disability recognised. I am more than willing to speak up, in parliament and elsewhere, to further understanding and to challenge the thinking and rhetoric behind these discriminatory restrictions.
4) Yes
The Green Party has a costed plan to build much more social housing, both locally and nationwide, thereby taking the pressure off waiting lists and ensuring everyone on a low income who needs housing will be supported. We also campaigned to cap rents at around 35% of average take-home pay, to ensure that landlords cannot exploit our basic need for housing. A compulsory national register of landlords is also needed to maintain good housing standards, and the Green Party would ban letting agencies from charging fees to tenants.
5) Yes
People from overseas living in the UK are often most in need of legal support and protection, as their rights come under repeated attack from governments seeking scapegoats. Full legal aid for all immigration cases must be restored.
6) Yes
Greater Manchester Law Centre and other voluntary bodies are doing essential work trying to plug the gap, but legal support should be considered a core right that is guaranteed to all. Decent secure funding must be provided to support this.

John Leech, Liberal Democrat candidate, Manchester Withington
1) Yes
2) Yes
3) Yes
I have seen in my surgeries the impact on those with disabilities.
4) Yes
I support better security of tenure in the PRS, and tougher action on retaliatory eviction.
5) Yes
The system needs to be streamlined to ensure fairness.
6) Yes

Oldham respondents

Conservatives: 0 of 2 (only one reached)
Labour: 0 of 2
Liberal Democrats: 0 of 2
Greens: 1 of 1

Adam King, Green Party candidate, Oldham West and Royton
1) Yes
2) Yes
3) Yes
4) Yes
5) Yes
6) Yes

Rochdale respondents

Conservatives: 0 of 2 (only one reached)
Labour: 0 of 2 (only one reached)
Liberal Democrats: 0 of 2

Salford respondents

Conservatives: 0 of 2
Labour: 1 of 2
Liberal Democrats: 0 of 2
Greens: 0 of 2

Barbara Keeley, Labour Party candidate, Worsley and Eccles South
1) Yes
2) Yes
3) Yes
4) Yes
5) Yes
6) Yes

Stockport respondents

Conservatives: 0 of 3
Labour: 1 of 3
Liberal Democrats: 0 of 3
Greens: 0 of 2

Martin Miller, Labour Party candidate, Cheadle
1) Yes
Access to justice should not be limited to people of substantial means. It is a fundamental right in a democracy but we are in danger of making justice the preserve of the few.
2) Yes
The Sanctions regime has targeted the vulnerable and is full of inconsistencies.
3) Yes
4) Yes
5) Yes
6) Yes

Tameside respondents

Conservatives: 0 of 3
Labour: 0 of 3
Liberal Democrats: 0 of 3
Greens: 1 of 3

Andy Hunter-Rossall, Green Party candidate, Ashton-under-Lyne
1) Yes
Everyone should have access to justice, regardless of wealth. I would vote to restore access to legal advice and to legal aid and to remove the restrictions housing, welfare, debt, immigration, employment and medical negligence law.
2) Yes
Delays in processing benefits claims and draconian sanctions have left people dependent on foodbanks and even losing their homes. I recently spoke to someone who was sanctioned and couldn’t pay his rent. Several months later, after challenging his sanction, he was given back payments, but by then it was too late to get his house back! Benefits claimants need stability and support, not sanctions.
3) Yes
People with disabilities have been amongst the hardest hit by benefits reforms over the last 7 years, especially by draconian work capability assessments. I would be more than willing to learn more from those affected and to represent them in parliament.
4) Yes
I want to see rent controls and more secure tenancies, giving people stability and security. I want to see a new generation of social housing. I want to see housing benefits made available to those under 21. And I want to see an end to the bedroom tax. I am proud to be representing the Green Party and to see all of these policies in their Green Guarantee.
5) Yes
Absolutely. To make drastic decisions about a person’s right to remain in this country and to not give them access to justice to challenge these decisions leaves the system wide open to abuse. A just immigration system must be one in which immigrants have access to justice!
6) Yes
Everybody needs access to legal advice and representation. I will absolutely use my voice to push for funding for access to justice.

Trafford respondents

Conservatives: 0 of 2
Labour: 2 of 2
Liberal Democrats: 1 of 2
Greens: 2 of 2

Andrew Western, Labour Party candidate, Altrincham & Sale West
1) Yes
Very supportive of restoration.
2) Yes
The way that claimants have been treated is a total disgrace and sanctions have destroyed lives.
3) Yes
4) Yes
Pleased that Labour has pledged action in this area.
5) Yes
6) Yes

Jane Elisabeth Brophy, Liberal Democrat candidate, Altrincham & Sale West
1) Yes
2) Yes
3) Yes
My son has a disability and I feel particularly strongly about this.
4) Yes
5) Yes
6) Yes

Geraldine Coggins, Green Party candidate, Altrincham & Sale West
1) Yes
2) Yes
3) Yes
4) Yes
5) Yes
6) Yes

Kate Green, Labour Party candidate, Stretford and Urmston
1)
I was a member of the Bill Committee for the LASPO Act and spoke out then about the damage of Legal Aid cuts. If re-elected I will support measures to restore access to justice through Legal Aid and by investing in community rights settings such as Law Centres. As you will be aware, Labour have also made a manifesto commitment to reverse employment tribunal fees that have priced people out of justice.
2)
I appreciate there is a need for appropriate conditionality within the benefits system but sanctions should be used only as a last resort. I am appalled by the shocking rise in the use of inappropriate sanctions, resulting in hardship and destitution, and the unnecessarily complex and lengthy Mandatory Review and appeals process.
3) Yes
I have spoken out in the previous Parliament on behalf of disabled constituents affected by sanctions and will continue to do so if re-elected.
4) Yes
Our Labour manifesto pledges to improve consumer rights for tenants by banning letting agency fees and introducing new legal minimum standards to ensure properties are fit for human habitation, empowering tenants to take action if their home does not meet these standards. We will ditch the Conservatives’ ban on long-term council tenancies to give council tenants security in their homes and scrap the bedroom tax.
5) Yes
Particularly for family reunion cases involving children and vulnerable dependants.
6)
Definitely

Michael Ingleson, Green Party candidate, Stretford and Urmston
1) Yes
2) Yes
3) Yes
4) Yes
5) Yes
6) Yes

Wigan respondents

Conservatives: 0 of 3
Labour: 0 of 3
Liberal Democrats: 0 of 3
Greens: 1 of 1

Will Patterson, Green Party candidate, Wigan
1) Yes
Of course I would vote to restore legal aid – access to justice is as fundamental a right in a democratic society as the right to vote and must not be restricted by affordability.
2) Yes
The entire benefit system has been redesigned under the Tory Government to deter people from claiming benefits – and when sanctions are applied wrongly, it’s often too late to mitigate the impact even when the error can be corrected.
3) Yes
I have a family member with a long-term mental health condition who claimed DLA but whose claim for PIP has been rejected. When his DLA claim was submitted, he was assessed by a psychologist. This time, he was seen by a physiotherapist! As a result, I have a personal stake in delivering benefit justice for disabled people.
4) Yes
During the recent Greater Manchester Mayoral Campaign, I supported calls for a Landlord Accreditation Scheme and for a Renters’ Union. In Parliament, I would have the opportunity to make accreditation legally enforceable.
5) Yes
Now that Article 50 has been triggered, and given the continued uncertainty of the status of EU nationals, this is a major issue, which should be at the forefront of lawmakers’ considerations.
6) Yes
Ideally I’d aim for legal aid services to be restored or for the Council to step in. Should they not prove possible, I’d be happy to act practically myself, and invite a GMLC volunteer to attend my constituency surgeries, so that constituents would have access to legal advice where a stern letter from the local MP won’t do.


Appendix

Law Centres Network Weekly Bulletin 19 from May 2017

Promises, promises: what the major parties say

It has taken until yesterday to finally have the three major party manifestos, leaving the public with only three weeks to debate actual pledges ahead of polling day. So what do we know now?

Labour promises to reverse several damaging government policies of recent years: to scrap Employment Tribunal fees, to restore legal aid for preparatory work on JRs, and to “consider reinstating” legal aid after the Bach Commission delivers its final report, as well as reviewing means testing for it, including the capital test. New commitments include forbidding charging for GP letters for DV victims, introducing no-fault divorce, retaining the Human Rights Act and holding public inquiries into historic injustices like Orgreave. Labour will allow courts to charge for services but at a fixed ratio between actual cost and the charge levied. They also commit to modernising courts “where it enhances access to justice” and “timely dispute resolution”.

Court modernisation and simplification is also a commitment of the Liberal-Democrats, who also commit to reversing increases to court and tribunal fees. After helping the Tories introduce LASPO, they now want an ‘urgent and comprehensive review’ of its effects on access to justice. Human rights are particularly important to the Lib-Dems, who commit to defending both HRA and ECHR. In addition, they promise a ‘digital bill of rights’ and to designate hate crimes as aggravated offences.

As the likely winners in the election, the Conservatives allow themselves to be lighter on firm promises and heavier on vision statements – largely shaped by May’s agenda rather than by more familiar Tory economic liberalism. Some promises repeat current policy, like modernising the courts or leaving the Human Rights Act be until after Brexit. Yet there are some surprising or positive pledges, like remaining in ECHR at least until 2022; introducing a Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill to finally define DV in law; looking at ways to improve the family justice system; and, nodding at Hillsborough, introducing public advocates for bereaved families in inquests of public disasters.
Professing to “abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality,” the Tories propose to tackle “burning injustices” like the gender pay gap, race discrimination and disability and mental health discrimination. This may not be helped by dropping their previous pledge to halve the disability employment gap. Child poverty is not, apparently, a ‘burning injustice’ and the Tories commit to reducing but no longer to eliminating it. While there are “no plans” for more radical reform to the welfare system, there is a pledge to keep it (fiscally) “sustainable”. Legal aid is only mentioned in a promise to restrict it for ‘unscrupulous law firms’ suing the armed forces.