‘We don’t kid ourselves we can turn the clock back’

‘What we will do is tell it like it is. We will document the need, collect the evidence and then let the evidence speak for itself.’ So says Lord Colin Low who will chair a major new post-LASPO initiative launched last week.

The Low Commission on the Future of Advice and Legal Support has been set up by the Legal Action Group to examine the impact of the legal aid cuts and develop a strategy to help ensure public access to justice. See below for a full list of its commissioners.

The aim of the Low Commission is to develop a strategy for the future provision of social welfare law services which:

  • meets the need for the public, particularly the poor and marginalised, to have access to good quality independent legal advice;
  • is informed by an analysis of the impact of funding changes and by an assessment of what can realistically be delivered and supported in the future; and
  • influences the thinking and manifestos of the political parties in the run up to the 2015 election.

 

Colin Low – or Lord Low of Dalston, to give him his full name – was born with congenital glaucoma and became totally blind at the age of three years. He has been a life-long disability rights campaigner and is vice-president of the Royal National Institute of Blind People.

Speaking immediately before last week’s annual LAG lecture – and the day after last week’s LASPO vote – I ask why he is interested in legal aid? ‘We are seeing swingeing welfare cuts which will affect disabled people with the move from Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payments,’ he replies. ‘Many people will be reassessed for their eligibility. We know a huge number of the assessments being carried out for Employment Support Allowance by Atos are flawed. Some 40% are being overturned on appeal.’

It is ‘reasonable to suppose there will be a very similar error rates’ with the PIP assessments, the peer reckons. ‘It is going to be very much harder for people to challenge these successfully if the assessment is wrong and they do not have the appropriate advice and assistance.’ He says that this one example that ‘illustrates the point’.

The government’s view is that welfare benefit claims and ‘social welfare law’ shouldn’t fall inside the legal aid scheme because the cases don’t have enough legal content. What did he make of that argument? ‘That is rubbish,’ the peer replies quickly. He recalls being presented by advisers with case notes for welfare benefit claims (‘three huge lever arch files in some cases’) in the run-up to LASPO. ‘It’s is going to be very difficult for people untutored in the law to deal with.’

Was the vote last week an important moment? (The Lords backed ‘a fatal motion’ on a regulation that would have denied legal help to people appealing welfare benefits on a point of law in first-tier tribunals.) Lord Low calls the victory ‘probably symbolic more than substantial’. ‘The point that was argued was that the government was going to go back on a commitment it made. It was never imagined that the concession promised, even at its widest, would have made a tremendous dent in the savings that the government will make.’ He says that he decided not to speak or vote ‘because I wanted to keep my powder dry as chair of this new commission’.

The Low commission isn’t the called ‘the commission for the future of legal aid’. Why? ‘The broad aims are to find out, as best we can, what the impact of the cuts are gong to be on people. We’re trying to find out the reality of that impact – not just the dry statistics – what this actually means in terms of people’s lives.’

The peer points out that the Commission has already received evidence of people turning to legal advice agencies ‘in some desperation. Up to their necks in debt. We had one person who came into a Shelter office who simply dumped a brown paper bag on the desk full of bills which they were unable to pay.’

‘Advice services are bound to be reduced,’ he continues. ‘We have already seen Law Centres and advice agencies closing and staff reductions in the ones that remain open. Some advice agencies are going to shift the focus from face-to-face to telephone work. Some people really need face-to-face service – especially, those who come in with a bag full of bills.’

How will the commission make the case for legal aid? ‘We are going to be trying to look at the system as a whole and not just trying to restore what once was,’ replies Lord Low. ‘By looking at the system holistically we hope to find ways to work more smartly and get as near to an effective service – in some ways may be even better service with reduced resources.’

‘One of our tasks will be to get the right narrative about legal services. At the moment legal aid and advice act as a means of supporting access to justice for people who cannot afford it for themselves. It traditionally been seen as one of the pillars of the civilised society but increasingly the emphasis seems to have shifted towards its disproportionate cost. Welfare is being seen increasingly as a disproportionate drain on the public purse.’

‘We have got to construct a narrative about legal aid which draws attention to the desperate plight in which people find themselves. Poor and vulnerable people are often not well-placed to cut their way through the thickets of problems that can afflict people and we need to get over the reality and the genuineness of the case for support in accessing legal services.’

‘It is no part of our purpose simply to castigate the government over the cuts and – to a degree they’re obviously necessary,’ the peer says. ‘Legal aid and every other area of public finance has to take a hit in the present financial climate.

Will a case be made for reinvestment into what remains of the legal aid system? ‘We don’t kid ourselves that it is going to be possible to turn the clock back and restore what has been cut. In some ways that mightn’t be the best thing to do anyway.’

The peer points to evidence put before the commission that ‘suggests that the legal profession has been content just to ride on the back of legal aid’ and ‘maintain the service that they have traditionally delivered without  innovation’ to meet changing circumstances such as the advent of new technologies.

‘We want to look at the system holistically and see that there are ways in which we can work more smartly to deliver more with reduced resources,’ he says.

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The Commissioners are:

  • Lord Low of Dalston
  • Amanda Finlay CBE: formerly a senior civil servant in the Ministry of Justice, responsible for legal aid. Now retired, she is a member of the Civil Justice Council; trustee of LawWorks and of LawforLife; and a public governor of Oxleas NHS Foundation Trust.
  • Bob Chapman: a management consultant, mainly in the legal sector and member of the Welsh Committee of the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council and a Member of the Board of Consumer Focus Wales.
  • Vandna Gohil: began her career as a community outreach worker at Coventry Law Centre and then senior welfare rights worker at Leicester City Council. Vandna became deputy director of Voluntary Action Leicester in and then moved to the National Lottery Community Fund where she was UK Policy and Development Manager. She then became Learning and Development Manager at Futurebuilders before being appointed the first director of Voice4Change England in 2007. In 2012 she became programme manager for Voluntary Action Leicestershire.
  • David Hagg: chief executive of Stroud District Council. David has served on regional legal service bodies and the District Council Chief Executive’s Network.
  • Steve Hynes: director of the Legal Action Group. Before joining LAG, Steve was the director of the Law Centres Federation.
  • Pam Kenworthy: a solicitor who runs the Howells CLA Telephone Community Helpline funded by the Legal Services Commission.
  • Vicky Ling: a consultant who has been involved in the legal advice sector since the early 1980s and a LegalVoice director. She has managed a Citizens Advice Bureau and a Law Centre and was a liaison manager at the Legal Aid Board.
  • Susan Steed: works part time at the New Economics Foundation, where she worked with Advice UK on commissioning for outcomes to legal aid. Susan is working on a PhD at University of Bristol looking at how well Bristol CAB operate the triage system.

 

About Jon Robins

Jon is a journalist and has written about the law and justice for the national papers and specialist press for more than 15 years. Jon is a visiting journalism lecturer at Winchester University, a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln and patron of Hackney Community Law Centre. He has won the Bar Council’s legal reporter of the year award twice (2015 and 2005). Jon is editor and co-founder of LegalVoice

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