The government should draw up a strategy to ensure advice and legal support are available for disabled people and others who get into difficulty in their daily lives, according to an inquiry headed by a disabled peer.
The Low Commission says that “urgent reforms” are needed to ensure help is available for those with employment, debt, housing and other social welfare law problems.
Members of the commission want to persuade political parties to adopt their proposals in the run-up to the next general election in 2015.
The report warns that cuts of £89 million-a-year in legal aid for social welfare law cases, and reductions in council funding for advice and legal support – estimated to reach £40 million-a-year by 2015 – had “destabilised and reduced” the sector at “a time of increased need”.
And it says these cuts are likely to end up “costing more elsewhere in the system”, for example if disabled people lose their benefits after being wrongly assessed as fit for work.
The report estimates that by 2015 there will be about £400 million-a-year to fund advice and legal support services, at least £100 million-a-year less than needed for a “basic level of provision”.
The commission – set up by the Legal Action Group and funded by various trusts and foundations – suggests the next government should provide half of this £100 million-a-year funding through a new 10-year fund for England and Wales.
The commission, which dealt only with England and Wales, was headed by Lord [Colin] Low, the disabled crossbench peer and lawyer.
The report says: “When people get into difficulty in their daily lives… they need to be able to get the right information and advice as early as possible.
“If this information and advice is not available, they could become unemployed, homeless or in debt – and, not only will they suffer distress, but the state will incur increased costs.”
The report says that it is “the most vulnerable or deprived people in society who are most likely to be affected, including many disabled people”.
The report calls for a simpler legal system, early intervention instead of allowing problems to escalate, and advice to be provided in places where people visit regularly, such as GP surgeries.
It also calls for legal education for the public, local advice networks and specialist support for advice agencies, and a national advice helpline and website, which would act as a safety net for those with nowhere else to go.
The report says it is “imperative” that the next UK government in 2015 develops a national advice and legal support strategy for England, while another should be drawn up by the Welsh government.
Lord Low said: “Our report makes sobering reading and we are calling on political parties of all stripes to recognise the need to act before we reach crisis point.
“All around the country we found advice agencies buckling under the strain, and ordinary people left with nowhere to turn.”
Philip Connolly, policy and communications manager for Disability Rights UK, said the report was “a very impressive piece of work” and came at a “very, very important time” because of the cuts to advice and legal support funding.
He said: “This situation is calamitous for the individuals concerned and needs to be addressed with long-term solutions.”
He welcomed the report’s emphasis on the importance of second-tier advice services – those organisations like Disability Rights UK that provide advice to the advisers – and the idea of a 10-year government fund.
But he said he believed the shortfall in funding was bigger than £100 million-a-year, although he welcomed the suggestion that some of this shortfall should come from the private sector, including through a levy on payday loan companies.
He also welcomed the idea of appointing a minister for advice and legal support, based in the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
But Connolly said he believed the government should be asked to bring in the report’s recommendations as soon as possible, rather than after the election.
An MoJ spokeswoman said: “We received the full report at the end of last week and we are looking at it very closely.”
She said the government had provided about £150 million to organisations such as Shelter and Citizens Advice since 2010 to “help them to adapt and transition to the current funding climate”.
She said the government funded “one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world at around £2 billion every year”, and had been forced to “face up to tough choices” in reforming legal aid, which was still available, for example, for eviction cases, family cases involving domestic violence, and cases relating to “life or liberty”.
16 January 2014