We have a monthly column in the Law Society Messenger. You can see the full February edition here.
This month, GMLC volunteer Lily Lewis gives her perspective of the impact of Legal Aid on her work.
Lily Lewis is a volunteer with Greater Manchester Law Centre’s Legal Advocacy Support Project. She is currently studying the Graduate Diploma in Law at Manchester Metropolitan University with a scholarship from the Inner Temple.
Former Lord Chancellor Charlie Falconer wrote recently that because of legal aid cuts the law “has become a means by which the oppression of the weak is institutionalised”.
Through my involvement with the Greater Manchester Law Centre, I see the impact of legal aid reductions first-hand. As a volunteer, I provide advice, support and representation to clients who are appealing failed assessments for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), a type of sickness benefit.
The number of individuals entitled to legal aid to challenge welfare decisions has fallen by 99 per cent since 2012. As a result, claimants are forced to either give up, go through a gruelling tribunal alone or rely on voluntary organisations like GMLC (where they exist) to explain the law and navigate the bureaucratic appeals process.
For those most in need, losing ESA payments of £73.10 per week could mean losing housing, struggling to pay the bills and falling in to poverty. Most of those stripped of the benefit are later proven to hold a genuine entitlement – over 70% of ESA appealsare successful. Charities such as Scopehave warned that a flawed assessment process, paired with the cost and administration associated with appeals, is leading to rising numbers of sick and disabled people with genuine entitlements failing to receive support.
I joined the Law Centre because I was keen to use my legal skills and knowledge to ensure those with genuine claims received the support they are entitled to. As volunteer advocates we gather evidence, prepare cases and provide representation at tribunals.
Without the work of volunteers and the generosity of those donating to the centre, many of those seriously ill people that we have helped would have lost their entitlements.Sadly, the reality of legal aid reductions means that we will never get to everyone who needs help, and many people simply aren’t getting that crucial advice and basic access to justice.
Welfare appeals are just one area where swingeing legal aid cuts have left vulnerable people deprived of access to justice. People have lost legal support in 62 per cent of housing cases in Manchester, meaning that many of those facing eviction, housing disputes and family breakdown cannot afford legal advice and representation. Tenants are forced to take on landlords and local authorities alone, faced with housing laws and regulations that even law students struggle with.
There is a gross inequality in a system in which those with money and power are entitled to proper representation and yet those who bear the brunt of their decisions are not.
Take inquests for instance. The struggle to meet legal costs faced by the Hillsborough families brought into sharp focus what many families face every day at inquests – the authorities who may be implicated in a death (such as the police and hospital trusts) appear with fully funded representation and yet bereaved relatives find they have no such entitlement.
In the family courts, parents are abandoning efforts to maintain contact with their children. Employees must take on abusive bosses without a lawyer. In crime, the Conservative Chair of the Justice Select Committee, Bob Neill MP, has warned that funding reductions threaten to undermine the rule of law in Britain.
One of the most galling things about the reforms is their failure to meet their primary objective – to save money. According to reports by the National Audit Office, although there have been significant upfront reductions in the legal aid budget, the courts and tribunal service more widely have faced increased costs due to, for example, an increase in the number of litigants in person. They also highlight the knock-on financial effects in other areas of public spending such as the NHS and housing (this can particularly be seen in the absence of early legal advice in housing matters). The NAO concluded that the reforms “cannot be said to have delivered better overall value for money for the taxpayer.”
For me personally, working at Greater Manchester Law Centre has brought into sharp focus the human costs of legal aid reductions. However, getting involved with the centre has also meant getting to know an amazing group of campaigners, lawyers and members of the community who are totally committed to fighting for the rights of those who need effective advocacy the most.
The sad truth may be that this work shouldn’t fall to voluntary organisations like us, but if you care about ensuring everyone gets the advice, support and representation they need to realise their rights, please consider supporting the law centre.
We always need donations, volunteers and people who can help support our campaign and speak up for fully funded legal services for everyone. Vulnerable and marginalised people in Greater Manchester rely on the law centre to access justice – please consider doing something to help us to help them.