Update on All-Party Group on Legal Aid
Eleanor Sanders, project worker to the All-Party Group (APG) on Legal Aid, writes:
Legal aid cuts
The APG held a meeting on Wednesday 13 February 2013. The theme was ‘Life after the legal aid cuts – social welfare law’, with an excellent line-up of speakers.
Lord Low spoke about his role as chairperson of the Low Commission, which has been established to develop a strategy for access to advice and support on social welfare law in England and Wales. The commission wishes to engage with as many interested individuals as possible (see also above).
Patrick Torsney then spoke about www.ilegal.org.uk
, which is a social justice forum. The website has been collaborating with the Centre for Human Rights in Practice at Warwick University to conduct a survey on how the legal aid cuts are likely to affect advice provision on social welfare law, looking at issues such as ‘skills loss’ and capacity to meet the ever-increasing demand. He hoped that the results would provide independently verifiable information and would assist the Low Commission.
Margie Butler, chief executive of Mary Ward Legal Centre, spoke about how the legal aid cuts would affect the centre: its budget had been cut severely and the service offered would be reduced significantly. She also stated that volunteers, although extremely valuable, cannot replace full-time paid professionals. Giles Peaker of Anthony Gold Solicitors focused on housing law. He warned that, despite some housing issues remaining in scope, a lack of advice on other areas would have a negative effect on housing advice provision. For example, rent arrears are usually the result of problems with benefits, but solicitors funded to help with housing problems will not be funded to assist with the underlying benefits issues. Giles Peaker also spoke about the geographical gaps in provision which will result from the government’s bidding system.
James Sandbach, of Citizens Advice, discussed the ‘front-line problems’ that are affecting advice services on social welfare law: for example, there are currently four million over-indebted households, leading to very high demand for advice. He felt that empowering individuals to challenge decisions which affected them was important, particularly in the area of consumer rights. Lord Bach then spoke briefly to invite comments and questions from members of the audience. Full meeting notes are available at: www.appg-legalaid.org
The next meeting of the APG will be on Wednesday 20 March. The theme will be competitive tendering for criminal work. Dr Elizabeth Gibby from the Ministry of Justice will speak, along with speakers from representative bodies. For further information about attending, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
and quote ‘APG on Legal Aid 20 March’ in the subject line.