Disabled people could be hit “disproportionately” hard by the government’s planned cuts to legal aid, according to a committee of MPs.
A report by the justice select committee says the evidence it received during its inquiry into the planned reforms to the legal aid system suggests that disabled people and other “vulnerable” groups could be “disproportionately hit by the changes”.
The committee’s report adds: “If this were to happen it would sit uneasily with the Government’s commitment to protect the most vulnerable in society.”
The government plans to cut an estimated £350 million a year from the £2 billion legal aid budget for England and Wales by 2014-15.
Among the areas where eligibility for legal aid is set to be removed are legal advice on benefits and less serious housing and debt issues.
But the committee’s report says it is “concerned that the ability of the most vulnerable people to present their cases will be weakened because they will not have had help and advice in preparing them”.
It adds: “This could deny justice to the individuals concerned and increase the time and expense necessary to deal with the case at tribunal.”
The committee said the changes have caused “serious concerns” among the providers of legal aid services and other organisations.
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.
AdviceUK – which supports free, independent advice centres – told the committee that one of its member organisations estimated that half of its clients had “physical health difficulties” with nearly half having “mental health difficulties”, while another member said 70 per cent of its welfare benefits clients were disabled people.
The government has admitted it does not know what impact the changes will have on disabled people and black and minority ethnic groups because of “information gaps”.
The government wants voluntary organisations to provide services in place of legally-aided support, but “many of the organisations concerned have said they will not have the funding to do so”, the committee’s report says.
One way to make legal aid savings would be to force the Department for Work and Pensions to pay a fine when its “poor decision-making” on benefits claims leads to large numbers of successful appeals, the report suggests.
Sir Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrat chair of the committee, said there was “cross-party consensus on the need to reduce the cost of the legal aid budget”, but he added: “Concerns remain, however, that there is the potential for vulnerable groups of people to be disproportionately hit by the changes.”
28 March 2011