Growing coalition of opposition to Coalition’s £350m Legal Aid cuts

Joanna Lumley re-entered the political fray today when she unveiled a campaign calling for government to rethink their proposed cuts to legal aid, reports Will Horwitz.

Joanna Lumley re-entered the political fray today when she unveiled a campaign calling for government to rethink their proposed cuts to legal aid, to coincide with the closing date for submissions to the Ministry of Justice consultation. The campaign, launched by the Law Society, is called “Sound Off For Justice” – soundoffforjustice.org.

The proposals – which Citizen’s Advice claim will leave half a million vulnerable people with complex debt, housing, or benefits issues ineligible for legal aid – have come in for increasing criticism, including today from Kids Company’s Camila Batmanghelidjh, from Labour’s shadow Justice team on this blog, and from Conservative MPs concerned about cuts in their own constituencies.

Helen Grant, Conservative MP for Maidstone, eloquently defended legal aid a couple of weeks ago:

“Since its introduction in 1949, legal aid has sought to provide access to justice for those of limited means and has remained a defining and essential feature of our democracy…

“For some of our most vulnerable people, it is the only sword and shield in their armoury… These proposals could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

The government hopes to save £350m from the legal aid budget, and has concentrated almost all the savings on funding for civil legal aid. Of particular concern to campaigners and local charities is the wholesale removal from scope of many aspects of social welfare advice, including issues with welfare benefits, debt, and employment which affect some of the poorest people in the UK.

The Bar Council today released a report suggesting the proposals could actually end up costing more than they save, as the Ministry of Justice pays for the extra burden on the court system from people trying to represent themselves, and other government departments such as the NHS pick up the tab for the knock-on effects of denying people justice.

This costly cut seems particularly counterintuitive when much of the demand for legal aid is actually created elsewhere in the public sector – a study in Nottingham estimated up to 40 per cent of people’s problems originated in other departments or local authorities.

Reducing errors elsewhere – particularly within the Department for Work and Pensions – would be a fairer way of cutting the bill than denying people access to help. Meanwhile the Law Society have identified other areas (pdf) where they think cuts to the budget could be made, particularly in the bureaucracy of the system.

Interviewed in the Telegraph a few days ago, justice secretary Ken Clarke seemed relaxed about the legal aid cuts, saying:

“Oddly enough, I’m not in as much difficulty as I thought.”

Today, campaigners from the Justice for All coalition – which has grown rapidly to more 2,200 members – sent him ‘I love legal aid’ Valentines cards.

They will hope that as celebrities, legal professionals, ordinary people and MPs from all parties join the escalating clamour against these proposals, Mr Clarke is forced to take notice.

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