Clarke’s legal aid axe cuts our rights not the deficit

Justice Select Committee Karl Turner MP explains how cuts to legal aid will cut our legal rights and not the deficit.

Ken Clarke

Karl Turner MP is a member of the Justice Select Committee

The government’s haste to reduce the deficit will see a speedy decline in access to justice. This week, the Justice Select Committee published its report on the government’s proposals for legal aid reform. It is clear from our report that the government’s haste to reduce the legal aid bill will prohibit access to justice and do little to reduce the deficit.

The Ministry of Justice’s legal aid reforms and the government’s proposals for deficit reduction are inseparable. The lord chancellor has accepted the responsibility of making cuts of 23 per cent to his budget, of which legal aid will make a substantial contribution.

In order to make quick and easy savings the government have wrongly chosen to reduce the scope of legal aid; our report states:

“There is the potential for the government to devise longer-term options for reform, rather than concentrating on simple options, such as reducing scope.”

Taking the quick and simple route will be hurtful to many of the most vulnerable in society. The governments own impact assessment outlined that:

“The proposals have the potential to disproportionately affect female clients, BAME (ethnic minority) client and ill or disabled people, when compared with the population as a whole.”

When we took evidence from the Advice Network and Advice Centres for Avon, they were keen to support this argument saying:

“We believe that [the reduction in numbers of cases eligible for legal aid as a result of scope changes] will represent a disaster for the thousands of individuals unable to seek redress for issues that affect their fundamental well-being.”

The government’s proposals will dramatically decrease access to justice for the most vulnerable. This is not going to happen by chance it is going to happen by choice. It was clear from representations made by the Citizen’s Advice Bureau that expenditure on legal aid actually saves the public money. For every £1 of legal aid expenditure on housing advice, debt advice and benefits advice the state saves £2.34, £2.98 and £8.80 respectively.

Our report also contradicts the Ministry of Justice’s argument that the shortfall in public funding can be made up by assistance from alternative sources. We heard evidence from many organisations including AgeUK, The Child Poverty Action Group, and Disability Alliance. All of these groups were quick to deny that this is the case.

The Free Representation Unit said:

“FRU does not provide initial advice to clients.”

Child Poverty Action Group stated:

“Unfortunately we do not have the resources to provide direct advice to people who are claiming benefits.”

The government are peddling falsehoods. Their untameable desire to cut the deficit at such a radical pace is closing the doors of justice for those who are in the most need. This is despite the fact that all the evidence demonstrates that irresponsible cuts to legal aid budgets will ratchet up costs across Whitehall.

It appears that even our constitutional right to justice is not free from the chancellor’s axe. 

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