LASPO becoming law is not just a cut, writes Julie Bishop. That would be manageable. It is the removal of free advice across the spectrum of poverty law. No longer will people get free advice with the legal problems everyday life can throw up, problems that can affect anyone at any stage of their life. A change of circumstance due to relationship breakdown, bereavement, injury, ill-health or the loss of a job can happen to us all.
Legal aid is a safety net to which all citizens are entitled. This is what has been taken away. The central principle of equality before the law has been undermined. If we no longer live in a society that protects its most vulnerable members we are all worse off.
When people need advice they need it about their circumstances as a whole – not just their presenting problem but all the related problems as well. Giving someone advice about the threat of eviction is futile if you can’t also tackle the welfare benefits problems and other debts that caused their inability to pay their housing costs in the first place. Or the knock on problems with the education system or health service their family members are experiencing.
This will cause a dilemma for Law Centres. Law Centres and the Law Centre Federation are committed to a holistic approach to legal advice so people’s circumstances really are improved by using the law to enforce their rights.
A perfect storm
As LASPO goes to Royal Assent the main discussion amongst Law Centres is: what will happen to our clients? The UK is officially in the worst recession for over 100 years with recovery even slower than predicted. Coupled with welfare reform, the need of our communities for legal assistance is constantly growing. The issue for us will be where to send the people we are no longer funded to help. Is there anyone else who can help them? I suspect not.
The government’s Advice Fund provides some assistance but over £70m has been taken away with one hand from the not-for-profit advice sector and given us £20m back with the other. And this is short term funding for two years only. Funding for equalities and human rights casework previously provided by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has ended as well. The discrimination category that remains under legal aid will not replace the work done previously by Law Centres with EHRC funding. If you’re discriminated against you’re just going to have to put up with it – unless of course you can afford thousands of pounds to pay for legal advice.
On top of this local authorities have had to drastically scale down their funding to advice services. This really is a perfect storm of cuts to services needed by some of the most vulnerable and marginalised members of society.
Those people most in need of complex legal advice, those least able to navigate the system, and those most expensive to the government, will be those most likely to drop out of the system. If help is not straightforward, the people who most need it will do nothing. It will reduce service levels, but it will not reduce the heartache or the cost to the public purse as the welfare state has to pick up the pieces further down the line.
Law Centres are reeling from the blow but are determined to survive. They will continue with legal aid work but it will no longer be their mainstay. They are already exploring alternative ways of working; new structures, more collaboration with the pro bono sphere and ways to generate income to support their free services. We will not be able to replace legal aid but we will protect and develop services wherever we can.
Whatever happens, law centres will fight on for their clients and their communities. We will continue to campaign to reverse the cuts to legal aid or to press for other ways of ensuring access to justice for vulnerable people. We will work with other organisations and use the media to highlight the effect of the cuts on people who just want to get their rights. We will gather evidence and brief politicians and government departments to highlight the disastrous effects of these cuts on the lives of real people.
You often hear people say that life today is like a return to the 1970s. Let’s not forget that the first Law Centre opened its doors in North Kensington in 1970 and is still helping local people today. Lawyers will have to become pioneers again to make sure access to justice doesn’t die. Law Centres will be at the forefront of the struggle.
- Justice in the UK needs pro bono work - 5th November 2013
- Transition fund: how much of the £67m will be wasted? - 30th May 2013
- We ignored the real fight - 14th February 2013
- It’s a rollercoaster ride, not a precipice - 6th December 2012
- Renewed anger - 20th September 2012
- IOLTA: Every little helps - 17th July 2012
- What about our clients? - 1st May 2012