Dr James Organ and Dr Jennifer Sigafoos from the University of Liverpool interviewed over 100 people living in and around Liverpool facing problems concerning family, employment and welfare benefits law. They also interviewed legal aid practitioners and advice agencies as part of their research for the report, which will be officially launched at an event in London on 13 September
Due to the loss of legal aid, some of the people interviewed could not take any action to resolve their legal issues. They spoke to one woman who said she had not seen her husband for five years, but due to the lack of legal aid she could not divorce him (see page 26). Another woman lost a case for parental responsibility for her child because her evidence of domestic violence was not recent enough to qualify for legal aid (see page 27) (the rules on this have changed since the research was carried out).
According to the report, many of those interviewed experienced severe financial difficulties due to not being able to obtain legal advice because of the LASPO cuts. A lack of advice also led to further problems; for example, some people interviewed were unable to receive advice about employment law problems, meaning they then had issues with welfare benefits (see page 28).
In employment law, the report found that participants viewed solicitors as ‘expensive and unavailable’ (page 34). The specialist employment law providers to whom the researchers spoke said it was low-value claims that they were least likely to take on ‘as conditional “no win no fee” arrangements would not be equitable either for the solicitor or the client’ (page 32). The report concluded that participants with employment law problems ‘expressed feelings of powerlessness in the legal process, and negative expectations in terms of reaching a conclusion’ (page 34).
The researchers found evidence that due to the lack of advice, people were not claiming the benefits to which they were entitled or challenging decisions. As well as affecting the individuals concerned, they argued this had a knock-on impact on public services such as the NHS, ‘where the costs resulting from LASPO may be transferred’ (page 42).
One of the participants interviewed was a 60-year-old woman with type 1 diabetes and other health problems. She was struggling to find assistance to challenge a decision to refuse her claim for employment and support allowance (ESA). The refusal of ESA had led to increasing financial difficulties for her and likely further health problems (see pages 44–45). A service provider reported an even more extreme case in which a person ‘had died, as a result of a lack of food, during the process of resolving their welfare benefit appeal’ (page 45).
Later this month Dr Organ and Dr Sigafoos will be speaking at the Access to Justice Fringe Event
at the Labour party conference. LAG’s director, Steve Hynes, will also speak at the meeting, which will take place on 24 September between 9 am and 11 am. The meeting is open to everyone.