Government cuts to the legal aid budget will lead to the “decimation” of the civil law system and cause huge problems for disabled people, Labour party members have heard.
The cuts are part of the government’s legal aid, sentencing and punishment of offenders bill, which is currently at its committee stage in the Commons.
Steve Hynes, director of the charity Legal Action Group, which promotes equal access to justice, said one of the areas campaigners were particularly concerned about was social welfare law.
He said the cuts would have a particularly damaging impact at a time when the government was introducing radical reforms of the benefits system.
He said: “If you change the benefits system in that way, that creates a need for advice and legal advice in our communities.”
The concerns were raised at a fringe meeting at the Labour party conference, organised by the Law Society and the campaign coalition Justice for All, whose members include RADAR, Disability Alliance and Disability Law Service.
Lord Bach, the former Labour legal aid minister, told the meeting: “I insisted right to the end that social welfare needed to have more money spent on it, not just because it was a time of recession but because it was the right thing to do.
“This type of law, the law that the government, including Liberal Democrats, are determined to abolish is the most crucial part of legal aid.”
He said the cuts would “clog up the courts” with “helpless cases”, and added: “On a practical level, it is a complete nonsense. On a financial level it is a complete nonsense.
“It is going to cost the state infinitely more in the end to sort out the problems that arise because social welfare law is effectively abolished.”
He said Labour peers would “do our very best to at least manage the worst effects” of the legislation.
Andy Slaughter, a shadow justice minister, said the benefits system was “in crisis, virtually” with success rates at appeals as high as 80 per cent when the claimant was represented, compared with substantially lower success rates for those without representation.
He said the cuts would also mean disabled people would not be able to secure representation in the higher courts, which he said was “nonsensical”.
Slaughter said he hoped peers would grab the legal aid measures “by the scruff of the neck”.
Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, vice-president of the Law Society, said that plans to introduce a “telephone gateway” as a first point of contact for all those seeking a civil legal aid lawyer would create serious problems for many disabled people, such as residents of care homes who wanted to challenge the standard of care they were receiving.
She said: “Who brings the phone to them? Someone from the care home. Who knows what is going on? Someone from the care home.”
27 September 2011