‘It’s time to come up with solutions, not just rehearse the problems’, said Unite negotiator Hugh Roberts, at Tuesday’s Unite event for activists working in the London Legal Aid and Advice Sector, reports Mary-Rachel McCabe.
Roberts was joined on the panel of speakers by Shadow Minister for Justice, Andy Slaughter MP, LAG’s Steve Hynes, Rhona Friedman of the Justice Alliance, Unite member and activist Ellie O’Hagan. The discussion, which aimed to build the campaign against the government’s decimation of the legal aid and advice sector, was chaired by Ruth Hayes in her role as chair of the Unite regional committee for not for profit workers.
Hayes, who is director at Islington Law Centre, opened the discussion by expressing that she was ‘heartened to see that increasingly people are mentioning legal aid, along with cuts to other services’, but that more campaigning was needed, as well as a ‘clear manifesto commitment’ from Labour.
Unite’s Hugh Roberts echoed the plea for Labour to either ameliorate or reverse the cuts, after declaring that ‘there is no end in sight’ to the government’s ‘remorseless’ attack on legal aid. A combination of jobs being lost, workloads getting heavier, pay freezes and cuts to pay mean that morale is ‘extremely low’ across the board, said Roberts.
‘We are in a bad place,’ declared Steve Hynes, Director of the Legal Action Group (LAG), which set up the Low Commission on the Future of Advice and Legal Support. The government is creating an ‘austerity justice system’, he continued.
New research published by LAG this month has shown that between 2009-10 and 2012-13, the number of social welfare law cases being opened dropped from almost 1.5m to less than 300,000, and the number of welfare benefits cases has dropped by almost 40% in the same period. These figures are in spite of the fact that the number of people who need legal assistance with their social welfare problems has increased, as a result of swingeing cuts and changes to the benefits system.
‘London is different,’ argued Hynes – due to its higher levels of poverty, personal debt and housing problems. And ‘Londoners get it’, he added, pointing to the results of a LAG opinion poll of Londoners in which 88% agreed that advice should be free to people on or below average national income. ‘It is wrong for any government to say that people don’t understand,’ said Hynes, before pointing to the recommendations of the Low Commission consultation report as possible solutions to the current problems of the advice sector.
‘Everyone is entitled to access to justice, rich or poor.’
Arriving at the end of the discussion, shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter MP described how the advice sector ‘bears no resemblance to what it did three or four years ago.’ Whilst the government has made cuts to the courts, prison service and probation service, the Labour MP said that he viewed the cuts to the advice sector and legal aid as the government ‘removing what it sees as impediments to corporations, and itself, getting on with their business.’
Outlining the range of cuts the government has introduced to the legal aid and advice sector, the shadow justice minister said, ‘if that’s the terrain we’re going to inherit in two years’ time, it will be very difficult to know where to start.’
Slaughter acknowledged that Labour would need to look at ‘advice deserts’, adding that these may be addressed by ‘something which begins with remote access’. The information available online has to improve greatly, he said, but is likely to be a feature of Labour’s proposals if they are elected in 2015. Greater use of telephone advice will also feature, said the MP, ‘but there has to be some face to face access for difficult clients with difficult problems.’
Slaughter went on to reveal that Labour is planning on ‘tipping the balance in favour of the consumer’, adding that he was referring to ‘consumers’ and not ‘litigants’, so as to ‘bring everyone into the equation’.
‘It is the responsibility of the state to ensure a good degree of advice is available; otherwise it will be left to rogues,’ concluded the Labour MP.
Unite campaigner Ellie O’Hagan also spoke at the event, recounting her own experience of needing a legal aid solicitor when she was arrested at a protest two years ago. ‘Without legal help from experts you can trust, it is just too scary to stand up for what you believe in,’ she said. She added that one of the biggest problems for legal aid is that ‘everyone thinks it’s something that won’t affect them, until something bad happens to them and they need a lawyer,’ which is why the government has thus-far got away with the majority of its cuts.
Time to strike
Speaking on behalf of the Justice Alliance, Rhona Friedman of Bindmans Solicitors pointed out that one of the reasons for the partial victory on Grayling’s first consultation – on client choice and price competitive tendering – was that there were over 16,000 responses, and urged everyone to respond to the second consultation.
As for the future plans of the Justice Alliance, she said that the group is lobbying the Liberal Democrats to ‘stay’ the proposals for further cuts to legal aid in advance of their ‘emergency motion on legal aid’ at the Lib Dem party conference on Wednesday. The Alliance is also supporting UK Uncut’s mass day of action on 5th October and has earmarked 5th November as a day for ‘across the board action’. ‘The unions are calling for a strike,’ said Friedman, ‘and that’s something we all need to be thinking about and building for.’
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