Legal aid ‘decimated’
This week, one of the nation’s top news stories is a topic too often overlooked: the decimation of the Legal aid advice network.
Legal disputes affect our homes, our families, our treatment as employees and more. They affect our very survival, for example when unwell or disabled people are left destitute after being wrongfully denied benefits they deserve. Legal Aid is the name given to the support given to pay for legal advice, mediation or representation for people who otherwise wouldn’t afford it.
On Monday 10 December, a BBC investigation revealed that:
- Up to a million people live in areas with no legal aid provision for housing, with a further 15 million in areas with one provider
- Around a million fewer claims for legal aid are being processed each year
- More than 1,000 fewer legal aid providers were paid for civil legal aid work than in 2011-12.
- Four legal aid providers for welfare cover Wales and the South West while 41 cover London and the South East.
Almost half of all community care legal aid providers are based in London.
Our statement and open letter
Following the national outcry on 10 December, our chair John Nicholson and Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit director Denise McDowell sent the below statement to the Guardian:
The coverage of the impact of legal aid cuts is stark – but not surprising; just as the Government’s promised “review” is well overdue. There is for example no provider of legal aid for immigration in Lancashire, where the Government wants to disperse more people seeking asylum because housing is cheap…
This context of cuts and closures is what propelled activists to start, for ourselves, the Greater Manchester Law Centre. The county used to have 9 law centres, but by 2015 only 2 remained. We said something had to be done; we had no funds but set up volunteer services to support some of those most in need of legal representation. And since 2016 we have reclaimed nearly £1.5 million in benefit entitlements which the DWP wrongly refused to claimants.
However, this isn’t good enough. We will not let the government off the hook by relying on cheap “pro bono” legal labour. Nor is it the role of the voluntary sector to take government money to implement the iniquitous “universal” credit regime. We provide legal advice (free, accessible, high quality, independent) but only at the same time as calling for an end to vicious benefit sanctions. We support people trying to exercise their legal rights to housing, but demand increased legal rights, such as the right to a secure home for all. We try to give helpful information to individuals affected by the Windrush but we must join together to end the hostile environment.
And legal aid can only be meaningful if there is a new generation of social welfare lawyers able to provide it – with universities providing social welfare in their curricula, with students free of debt, with publicly funded legal aid to pay for law centres throughout the country.
The Legal Aid Agency’s directory of providers lists offices across the country offering Legal Aid services. Solicitors and caseworkers at GMLC say that the numbers only tell half a story.
“The directory indicates that there are only 4 separate providers for the welfare benefits contract in Greater Manchester. We’re one of them, and two of the others are also charities”, says GMLC supervising solicitor, Ngaryan Li. “But even if you have this contract, regardless of how much work you do for the person, you only get paid £208. That £208 could cover anything from a few days to a few weeks of work by an experienced professional.
“This means there’s a big onus on the person either running their appeal without help, or hoping their legal representative will be able to work for free. These are people who are already living with physical medical conditions or mental health conditions, and often both.
“They are expected to tackle the cumbersome mandatory reconsideration process themselves, then wait up to 44 weeks for an appeal to be heard. Then, if they lose their appeal, they have to request a statement of reasons and apply for permission to appeal to the upper tribunal. If they get permission refused, they need legal assistance to make the application.
Therefore, Legal Aid in its current form is virtually useless for these people. Is it a surprise we are losing a generation of welfare rights advisors?”
GMLC housing solicitor Kathleen Cosgrove says “many years ago when I began my career as a solicitor, everyone was agreed that early, preventative advice on family breakdown, losing employment, loss of benefits, community care services and housing rights worked. It stopped people falling into crisis and saved money as a result.
“The consequences of the attack on Legal Aid and the advice sector over the last 10 years were always, utterly predictable. Just as we would face a crisis in public health if you withdrew preventative medial services and limited access to GPs to those who were already at deaths door, so too we now face a homelessness crisis, mass reliance on food bank provision, and rising suicide rates for disabled people because people are denied access to early legal advice.
“It is now so difficult for Legal Aid solicitors to survive that they decide to or are forced to pack in. It is telling that a large proportion of the Legal Aid providers left in Greater Manchester are from the voluntary sector, surviving as a result of other charitable sources of funds.
“There simply aren’t enough Legal Aid solicitors left to meet the growing demand and as a result people are left facing injustices that are not just unfair, but unlawful. Charity isn’t enough and just as it doesn’t solve medical problems, it doesn’t solve legal ones either”
In response to the BBC investigation, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson said that “every person should have access to legal advice when they need it – that’s why the Legal Aid Agency keeps availability under constant review and takes urgent action whenever it has concerns”.
The decimation of Legal Aid is more than a concern. We await the urgent action.