Planned cuts in government spending on legal aid will have a serious impact on disabled people’s access to justice, say campaigners.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) this week launched a consultation on its plans for reforming legal aid in England and Wales, which it said would target support on “those who need it most”.
If all the proposals were implemented, they would save an estimated £350 million a year from the £2 billion legal aid budget by 2014-15.
Justice secretary Ken Clarke said the proposals would “ensure access to public funding in those cases that really require it, the protection of the most vulnerable in society and the efficient performance of the justice system”.
Legal aid would be retained in areas such as community care, asylum and people with mental health conditions who have been sectioned appealing against the terms of their detention.
But among those areas where eligibility for legal aid is set to be removed are legal advice on special educational needs appeals, employment claims, and appeals against refusal of benefits such as disability living allowance and employment and support allowance (ESA).
The consultation document claims advice on benefits appeals is available from other sources, including charities such as Disability Alliance (DA), the Child Poverty Action Group and Age UK.
But DA has already written to the MoJ, saying the claims are “factually incorrect and extremely misleading”.
Neil Coyle, DA’s director of policy, says in the letter: “The implication that charities like Disability Alliance are available to help people in the advent of legal aid cuts misrepresents the reality [which is]that we do not provide such support.”
He adds: “We are particularly concerned that ministers are made immediately aware that potential changes to legal aid and reductions in support simply cannot be met by small charities such as Disability Alliance – despite the statement included in the consultation.”
Anne Kane, policy manager for Inclusion London, said the planned cuts were “appalling”, and pointed to the huge numbers of successful appeals being made by disabled people whose ESA claims have been rejected.
She said the cuts would have a severe impact on disabled people, including disabled children fighting for their right to support at school.
She added: “Legal aid is already pared to the bone – it is already extremely difficult to get legal aid. This will have a profound effect in denying people access to justice.”
The National Aids Trust also said it was “extremely disappointed” at the proposals to cut legal aid for employment cases, just weeks after the new Equality Act came into force and gave disabled people new protection from workplace discrimination.
The charity also expressed concerns about the cuts to legal aid for benefits advice.
18 November 2010