The Legal Aid Bill: call for action
Edward Graham examines the Legal Aid Bill and what action needs to be taken to alert MPs about its potential impact on advice agencies and their clients.
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill had its second reading in the House of Commons on 29 June. This is the Bill which proposes to take most of social welfare law out of the scope of legal aid1 (see Bulletin 220 for more details). The proposals will devastate advice provision for the most vulnerable members of society, and for welfare benefits would mean:
- no more Legal Services Commission (LSC) contracts to deliver welfare benefits advice;
- no more legal aid in the courts for welfare benefits – ie, for solicitors or organisations like CPAG to challenge Upper Tribunal decisions and take appeals to the Court of Appeal, Supreme Court and European Court of Justice (EJC);
- no more specialist support service funded by the LSC;
- that any replacement telephone advice line would not include advice on welfare benefits.
The government does not believe that advice on benefits is either important enough or complex enough to justify funding from the state via legal aid,2and has not changed its view as a result of the consultation.3However, it is not at all clear that it was aware of the impact that removing social welfare law from legal aid would have upon voluntary sector advice organisations. Therefore, there is some scope to try to stop or minimise the harm of these proposals.
CPAG and other organisations are working hard with parliamentarians to try to get changes to the legislation, and we are hoping to get a number of amendments tabled which will protect legal aid for welfare benefits. Although it is possible that the government will be defeated on some aspects of its plans in the House of Lords, where there is likely to real concern about access to justice, political pressure from MPs from all parties is essential if the government is going to make changes to the proposed legislation.
The Labour opposition is likely to vote against the clauses that remove welfare benefits from legal aid and advice agencies, and claimants can play a crucial role in ensuring that all MPs are made aware of the impact that the changes will have. Many MPs are already seeing an increase in the number of claimants seeking assistance with benefits problems, as advice centres close or contract as a result of cuts in local authority funding of advice services – necessitated by cuts from central government.
Parliament is currently in recess. When it resumes, the Commons committee scrutinising the Bill will sit from the 6 September to 13 October 2011. The MPs on the committee are:
- Jim Sheridan, Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Lab);
- Philip Hollobone, Kettering (Con);
- Crispin Blunt, Reigate (Con);
- Tom Brake, Carshalton and Wallington (LibDem);
- Robert Buckland, South Swindon (Con);
- Mike Crockart, Edinburgh West (LibDem);
- Alex Cunningham, Stockton North (Lab);
- Jonathan Djanogly, Huntingdon (Con);
- Yvonne Fovargue, Makerfield (Lab);
- Helen Goodman, Bishop Auckland (Lab);
- Kate Green, Stretford and Urmston (Lab);
- Ben Gummer, Ipswich (Lab);
- Damian Hinds, East Hampshire (Con);
- Jessica Lee, Erewash (Con);
- Elfyn Llwyd, Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Plaid Cymru);
- Jonathan Reynolds, Stalybridge and Hyde (Lab);
- Andy Slaughter, Hammersmith (Lab);
- Anna Soubry, Broxtowe (Con);
- Elizabeth Truss, South West Norfolk (Con);
- Karl Turner, Kingston upon Hull East (Lab);
- Ben Wallace, Wyre and Preston North (Con);
- Dave Watt, St Helens North (Lab);
- Jeremy Wright, Kenilworth and Southam (Con).
We urge all advice agencies and claimants to contact their MP. The more claimants who attend their MP’s surgeries or write to protest about the legal aid cuts, the more likely it is that MPs will understand and take up with ministers the flaws contained in the Bill.
If your MP is one of the ones listed above, especially if s/he is Conservative or Liberal Democrat, then it is even more important that s/he is made aware of the disastrous consequences on voluntary sector advice agencies and their clients that the Bill’s proposals will have.
CPAG is part of the Justice for All campaign. Its website has a number of resources that claimants and advice agencies can use, including a template letter for claimants to take or send to their MP. Case studies that illustrate the vital role that legal aid funding has played in resolving a claimant’s problems are easy ways to show MPs the value of advice services, and can be used by MPs in the committee’s debates.
If you do get a response from your MP, please send CPAG a copy.
Please be aware that welfare rights law and guidance change frequently. Therefore older Bulletin articles may be out of date. Use keywords or the search function to find more recent material on this topic.
- 1. Sch 1 Part 2 Para 15 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill
- 2. Ministry of Justice, Proposals for the Reform of Legal Aid in England and Wales, Consultation Paper CP12/10, Cm7967, para 4.217
- 3. Legal Aid Reform in England and Wales: the government response, Cm8072, Annex B para 104