Socialist Worker

Legal Aid cuts will kick workers and the poor out of the courts

Cuts of £350 million from legal aid will deny thousands of ordinary people the right to defend their jobs, homes and benefits in court, says Siân Ruddick

Issue No. 2348

 

Legal aid logo

Are you trying to navigate Britain’s ever changing maze of immigration law for your right to stay in the country?

Do you need to take on a landlord who’s taking you for a ride, or appeal against the government taking away your benefits?

When ordinary people come into contact with the legal system, it often concerns matters with huge implications for their lives. 

It can be a hostile, complicated and tremendously expensive environment to get through alone.

Legal aid can make all the difference in cases like these. 

It also covers people who need help getting a divorce, or in disputes with their children’s school.

But new welfare cuts are taking it away from the people who need it.

Anyone with a combined household income of £32,000 will be denied funding altogether. 

That rules out most households of two adults and two children, for example.

Intrusive 

Those in households on anything above £14,000 will be subject to a long and intrusive means test to see if they are poor enough to qualify. 

Even then, they will have to pay a higher proportion of their own costs than before.

“The means test will be monstrously complex,” says Richard Miller, head of legal aid at the Law Society. 

“It will become rare for someone with a household income of more than £20,000 to qualify.”

This means around 600,000 of the cases brought in a typical year will be excluded.

This includes 42 percent of housing cases and 92 percent of immigration cases. 

And the welfare cuts mean this will be anything but a typical year.

These cuts add up to £350 million. Still to come are cuts to aid for those facing the police and the prison system.

The majority of legal advice workers oppose the changes.

The sheer number of people excluded from legal aid means that far fewer cases will be coming through the courts.

More than one in four lawyers and solicitors expect to be out of a job as a result. 

And one in three firms working on legal aid say they’ll have to quit the sector and make redundancies. 

Housing charity Shelter has closed 11 contact and advice centres and cut around 100 jobs.

The Tories’ enormous attacks on welfare this month will see many people who’ve never needed legal aid before pushed into debt and arrears. 

They have now been robbed of one of the tools in place to defend them.


Tribunals and tribulations

Workers face a double clampdown on their rights to take on bosses at employment appeal tribunals.

They are losing the right to legal aid for any tribunal appeal other than those where bosses are accused of discrimination.

This will make it much easier for bosses to fire workers.

And Lib Dem Vince Cable wants to go much further.

His Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill would limit the compensation workers could win for unfair dismissal compensation.

And on top of legal fees, workers would have to pay charges for bringing a case at all. 

In place of the right to a free tribunal, the bill proposes to charge £250 for lodging a standard claim.

Workers would pay a further £950 if it goes to a hearing.

The government said the bill will help Britain’s “economic recovery”. It says taking away workers’ rights will “reduce regulatory burdens” on firms.


High cost of going to court

The cut will snatch an average of £600 from each legal aid claimant. 

That’s a tiny amount in terms of the high profile court battles of the rich and famous.

But for workers and poor tenants it could make the difference between going to court and being carved out of the system.

A fairly simple employment tribunal could take a solicitor two weeks of preparation and a three day hearing. That would cost a worker without legal aid hundreds of pounds.

Other cases are more complex. A lengthy divorce can run to well over £5,000.

And once you lose the right to legal aid, if you lose your case you have to pay your opponents’ legal fees on top of your own. You could end up paying more than double what you bargained for.

That’s why the lawyers’ Bar Council expects to see a massive increase in the numbers of people trying to represent themselves.

It has rushed out some advice for those with no choice but to represent themselves. This includes things like “Don’t talk like TV lawyers. Judges hate it.”

They might get slightly more concrete advice and support from the Citizens’ Advice Bureau.

But it’s another of the services facing funding cuts and job losses.


Good money after bad cuts

Slashing legal aid could cost the government more than it saves.

People without proper legal representation take far longer to get through court. 

And without proper advice they are less likely to find a solution before their costs spiral out of control.

The Citizens Advice Bureau said that every £1 cut from legal aid for housing will cost an extra £2.34. The impact is even more dramatic for benefits advice.


Cameron’s new migrants myth

David Cameron hasn’t left legal aid out of his scapegoating of migrants.

“We can no longer grant legal aid to non-UK nationals” he told the Daily Express.

“We need a proper residency test and we’re going to consult on introducing one.”

But just 2 percent of cases granted legal aid relate to immigration.


Regions denied representation

Huge regions could have almost no access to legal assistance, according to a survey carried out by the Centre for Human Rights in Practice at the University of Warwick and the website iLegal.

It said the Midlands, north of England, Wales and the south west could soon be “aid deserts”. 

This is despite the fact that some cases, such as domestic violence, are still covered by legal aid.

 


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Background Check
Tue 9 Apr 2013, 19:00 BST
Issue No. 2348
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