Government defeats high court challenge over legal aid cuts


A disabled people’s organisation has failed in its first attempt to challenge the government in the high court over its sweeping cuts to legal aid.

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

The bill will cut about £350 million a year from the £2 billion legal aid budget for England and Wales by 2014-15.

Campaigners have warned that the proposed cuts will 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.

DLS had told the court that plans to remove advice on benefits and wills from the legal aid system would breach the Equality Act. Nearly three-fifths of people who seek advice for benefits appeals are disabled or ill.

But Clarke’s lawyers had argued that disabled people did not need legal aid to challenge benefits decisions because the relevant laws were simple and such claims were “essentially financial in nature” and so less important than “fundamental issues such as those involving a person’s safety or liberty”.

Sean Rivers, a social welfare solicitor at DLS, said Clarke’s statements “clearly show that he has no understanding of the effects of cutting disability benefits upon the most vulnerable in society”.

He said: “The removal of welfare benefits from the scope of legal aid may devastate this area of law, leaving the most vulnerable with no-one to assist them in appeals against the secretary of state.”

Clarke’s lawyers had argued that an equality impact assessment carried out by his department complied with the Equality Act.

They also argued that only parliament had the right to scrutinise this compliance, rather than the courts. The judge, Mr Justice Nicol, agreed with the government and ruled against DLS, which now plans to appeal.

Although DLS accepts that the bill cannot be withdrawn or amended, it wants Clarke’s actions declared unlawful.

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “Disability Law Service has renewed [its]application for permission to proceed with the judicial review, so we cannot presently comment as legal proceedings are ongoing.”

The case is the latest in a series of high-profile court challenges of decisions by public bodies to slash services and spending in the wake of the coalition’s deficit reduction plan, and came in the same week that two disabled men won a high court case challenging cuts to their support by Isle of Wight Council.

16 November 2011

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