The Coalition Government boasts about its record in the Justice area, but these claims must ring very hollow to hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens who will no longer be able to obtain access to justice, writes Lord Willy Bach. This may sound absurd, but it is no exaggeration.
As part of their legal aid reforms, in the vast majority of cases from 1st April, it will no longer be possible to get legal aid in order to receive legal advice in the field of social welfare law – otherwise known as the law of everyday life – that means welfare benefits law, debt law, employment law and the majority of housing law. This legal advice, if given early, can often sort out the legal problem, change lives for the better, and help avoid the enormous cost to both the individuals and families involved as well as the State itself when matters are allowed to get out of hand.
This legal help is presently given by Law Centres, the CAB and other advice agencies, and by some law firms, many of whom will be certain to close. The advice given is quality advice and it comes cheap – around £150 a case. Its value for money cannot seriously be questioned.
When it is abolished, what are the people concerned – often the poor, the disabled, and the marginalised – going to do if, for example, the DWP has got their benefit entitlements wrong, as so often is the case? Where are they going to get access to justice? If they cannot, how is this acceptable in a country that prides itself on its justice system, and in particular on equality under the law?
Completely in line with this rotten policy of cuts is a nasty and unfair ruse the Government has come up with. A concession, that would allow legal aid for first tier tribunals in ‘points of law’ appeals, was made to get the LASPO Bill through the Commons. By the time the relevant regulations appeared, it had been watered down. The Lords passed a Fatal Motion, a very rare event, inviting the Government to withdraw the regulation and come up with something a little more generous. HMG’s response was to withdraw even the more minor concession, taking no notice of the Lords’ decision and, even worse, penalising those citizens who would have benefited from the minor concession. Such conduct is not worthy of a mature, sophisticated democracy, where government is supposed to be subject to the will of Parliament.
It is conduct more likely to be seen in some third rate dictatorship. The Government won’t tell you about this scandal; it deserves wider coverage.
It is deeply depressing that in this area the government has behaved so badly. Instead of protecting the poorest and the disabled, at a time of austerity and radical Welfare reform, it has deliberately taken away their only realistic means of obtaining justice by removing the ability to get free legal help. That this can happen in our country is demeaning and is a serious blot on our rightly respected system of justice.
This article first appeared in House Magazine, March 7th 2013