Monthly Archives: April 2013

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Legal Aid Sector Concerned Amidst Effects of Reforms

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Despite great opposition from parliament, lobbyists, and the legal sector, Kenneth Clarke’s highly unpopular legal aid cuts came into effect. From 1st April, legal aid is no longer available in most civil law areas. Family disputes such as divorce and custody are no longer covered, as are welfare, immigration, employment, clinical negligence, housing, debt, benefit and education.

Although savings of around £350m are to be made to the Ministry of Justice budget, and additional savings in court time and money will be made over time, critics point out the cost of these savings is too high.

Many legal charities and legal aid firms are feeling the effects already. Government figures estimate that around 600,000 people will lose access to justice with the withdrawal of funding; some constituencies already have no legal aid firms. Some centres have had to turn people away. Indications show that up to 1,000 law firms taking cases up backed by legal aid are likely to diversify to different areas of law, or close.

The lack of free legal advice or representation in certain legal areas will have a dramatic impact on people’s lives. In a pseudo- postcode lottery, legal advice services are heavily concentrated in London and the south east, making it easier for claimants to get the free advice they need. In other areas, especially the north, Midlands, south west and Wales, legal advice is less widespread, resulting in such closures affecting people and communities more. This and other reports has raised great concern in the legal sector that the most vulnerable and most in need will be denied access to justice, advice or representation.

Another effect already being witnessed as the changes come into force is on legal sector jobs. Several Citizen Advice Bureaux have sent out redundancy notices to many staff, and several similar charities have been forced to close offices. A survey, conducted by the Centre for Human Rights in Practice at the University of Warwick and the website ilegal, found that 29% of legal aid workers felt at personal risk of losing their job over the cuts. The most experienced legal aid workers were at the greatest risk of redundancy, in addition to workers in areas of high demand such as housing, debt and welfare benefits.

In a great change in working ethos and culture, some previously free legal centres have now had to start charging for their services- a move which the legal sector as a whole was most anxious and determined to avoid.

In measures to avoid denying claimants access to justice, the government and the Big Lottery are to invest £65m in providing support over the next two years to law centres while the transition is made, with telephone and online advice centres also being opened. The Bar Council has recently published a handbook to assist and advice the expected increasing numbers of litigants in person (LIP’s; claimants who represent themselves in court). Justice Minister Lord McNally has stated that, even after the changes, the government will be spending £1.7bn in legal aid annually, and will have contracts with solicitors nationwide to ensure that all claimants can get representation and advice.

Kenneth Clarke’s legal aid reforms, since proposed, were controversial, and have met great opposition at all levels. Coming into force only a week ago on April 1st, the effects in cutbacks, jobs, and the inability of claimants to get legal advice is already evident.

Of the reforms and their impact, ilegal founder Patrick Torsney stated that “these findings are indicative of the precarious state of the whole legal aid advice sector in this country at the moment. Urgent action is required to protect it. Without such action there will be terrible consequences for vulnerable people across the country and for our legal system itself.”

Guest article provided by Henry Court. Henry has published on a number of sites and works in conjunction with PPICalculator.co.uk – fighting for fairness and compensation for everyday people.