A new report (pdf) launched in Parliament today suggests MPs’ surgeries will see a dramatic surge in people seeking legal help after the legal aid cuts are introduced in April 2013, as local advice agencies and legal aid lawyers close or scale back and MPs become the ‘advisor of last resort’ for increasing numbers of constituents.
The report, conducted by Young Legal Aid Lawyers and based on interviews with MPs, their caseworkers and constituents, shows how MPs already devote considerable time and money to helping constituents resolve legal problems, and often refer people on to local advice agencies and legal aid solicitors.
These include help with welfare benefits, debt, employment and immigration, all of which feature heavily amongst the issues MPs help with at present. About 650,000 people will lose access to legal aid under government’s proposals.
The problem will be exacerbated by a lack of support for MPs themselves – at present the research shows constituency offices will often refer clients on to local advice agencies or legal aid solicitors. Without this option, they will be forced to deal with more complex issues themselves.
This will be difficult without considerably increased staff expertise, and in some areas of law is actually illegal.
Ultimately the impact will be felt by constituents themselves, since it is unlikely MP surgeries will be able to meet the demand or provide the level of expert help many require, and charities have made it clear they will not be able to pick up the slack.
Most recently Citizens Advice announced legal aid cuts will decimate specialist advice in bureaux, and a fifth of advice centres surveyed by campaign group Justice for All said they were at risk of closure next year.
The debate resumes today with an amendment led by Baroness Grey-Thompson which would ensure advice continues to be provided face-to-face as well as over the phone. If it is unsuccessful, there is even more chance MPs will be left as the only source of face-to-face advice, even on areas of law that remain within legal aid.
This report highlights, yet again, the recklessness of the legal aid cuts. Repeated studies have shown that they will not save money, and will leave vulnerable people with nowhere to turn for help on vital and complex issues.
Last week a group of peers from all sides of the House, led by Liberal Democrat Baroness Doocey, won an amendment to keep welfare benefit appeals and reviews within the scope of legal aid.
As Lord Newton, Conservative former social security secretary, pointed out, advice on benefits is used predominantly by disabled people, and significantly improves the accuracy of decision making at tribunal. It also saves money (Citizens Advice estimate £8.80 for every £1 spent) and will be vital during significant reforms to the benefits system.
Perhaps all this, on top of the prospect of hundreds of constituents queuing up outside their weekly surgery, will be enough to convince MPs to take another serious look at these reforms and accept the amendments won in the Lords.