How legal aid cuts will hit politicians locally

Christopher Sykes looks at how cuts to legal aid could impact local politicians.

Christopher Sykes looks at how cuts to legal aid could impact politicians locally

Much like going to court, no-one ever wants to undergo surgery. Medical surgery is usually a more worrying prospect but serious problems are also dealt with in political surgeries. Political surgeries enable troubled constituents to seek help from local leaders on anything that concerns them.

Such concerns could range from simple boundary disputes to more complex matters of welfare or human rights. Local leaders can provide assistance but not the direct legal advice that is often needed.

With this in mind, ongoing cuts to the legal aid budget should concern local leaders. Since 2012, the £2.2bn annual legal aid budget has been cut by some £540m. This budget pays lawyers at below market rates so they can advise people otherwise unable to afford legal services.

Previously, local leaders could rely on a specialist network of legal aid lawyers to advise troubled constituents. The majority of legal aid lawyers are, however, emphatic that the cuts will put them out of practice.

The cuts have been criticised for compromising the rule of law but a more practical concern is that they will overburden the surgeries of local politicians. The Young Legal Aid Lawyers association made this argument in 2012 after interviewing 45 MPs. It concluded that the cuts would compel poorer constituents with complex legal problems to turn to local representatives rather than lawyers for help.

This would challenge such representatives to take on problems they are unqualified to resolve in a way that reduced their overall efficiency and reputation as problem-solvers.

This is a reasonable but avoidable forecast. The Low Commission, chaired by Lord Colin Low to consider the state of social welfare law, published a report earlier this year that suggested how local authorities could mitigate the effect of the cuts.

One suggestion was for them to co-commission legal support plans in association with regional not-for profit or commercial advice agencies. Importantly, the Commission concluded that local authorities should be responsible for ensuring that basic legal advice is accessible to any constituent in need.

It is not yet entirely clear how the legal aid cuts will affect local government. Nevertheless, if demand for legal services remains constant, but supply dwindles, local leaders may come under pressure to make up the shortfall. Leaders who fail to do so may find that their surgeries come to resemble triages where the most troubled constituents are simply ‘beyond help’.

Christopher Sykes is a researcher at Localis, a local government think tank

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