Justice secretary faces high court challenge over legal aid cuts


The government is facing a high court challenge from a disabled people’s organisation (DPO) over its sweeping cuts to spending on legal aid.

Disability Law Service (DLS) is seeking a judicial review of the cuts proposed by justice secretary Ken Clarke through his legal aid, sentencing and punishment of offenders bill.

He plans to cut an estimated £350 million a year from the £2 billion legal aid budget for England and Wales by 2014-15.

The case is the latest in a series of high-profile court challenges – including several by DPOs – of decisions by public bodies to slash services and spending in the wake of the coalition’s deficit reduction plan.

DLS is arguing that Clarke’s decision to cut legal aid for benefits cases is “irrational”, and that a government consultation carried out on the proposals was unlawful. It is also challenging the removal of civil legal aid for wills.

It believes the consultation failed to consider fully the effect the cuts would have on disabled people.

And it says that Clarke’s belief that the only negative effect of the cuts would be financial – with no “social or personal impact” on disabled people – is “irrational”, and calls into question the “validity” of the consultation’s equality impact assessment.

Sean Rivers, social welfare solicitor at DLS, said Clarke’s plans would remove access to a fair hearing for disabled people, even though the consultation confirmed that at least 58 per cent of those who require advice for benefits appeals are ill or disabled.

He said only three per cent of more than 5,000 responses to the consultation agreed with the government’s proposals.

Rivers said: “As almost every expert in the area of law disagrees with the government’s proposals, we find that there is no other option than having this matter considered by the courts.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said he could not comment on an “ongoing legal action”.

But he added: “At more than £2 billion per year, we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, which in the current financial climate we just cannot continue to afford.

“Our measures target legal aid at those who need it most, and at the most serious cases.”

Last week, a fringe meeting at the Labour party conference heard that the proposed cuts to legal aid would lead to the “decimation” of the civil law system and cause huge problems for disabled people, particularly at a time when the government is introducing radical reforms of the benefits system.

A report by the justice select committee in March found that disabled people and other “vulnerable” groups could be “disproportionately hit by the changes” to the legal aid system.

And Citizens Advice has estimated that for every £1 of legal aid spent on benefits advice, the state potentially saves £8.80, for example in tribunal, housing and NHS costs.

6 October 2011


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