Legal and human rights groups around the country celebrated the announcement.
Labour has pledged to bring back legal aid as soon as it takes power.
The announcement was made by the shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon, and hailed by legal groups across the country.
A staggering number of people have been labelled as “fit to work” by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) since the Conservative came to power in 2010 – many of which with undeniable disabilities or ill health.
Legal aid has been considerably restricted since the introduction of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) of 2012.
Labour said the move would “help to ensure that victims of flawed DWP decisions are able to defend themselves and get the financial support they are entitled to.”
Burgon, who is the MP for Leeds East, said today:
“Flawed benefits decisions create unnecessary hardship, stress and anxiety for people often already in desperate situations due to illness, unemployment or disability. Yet legal support against dodgy benefits decisions has fallen off a cliff edge – down 99% – at a time when people need it more than ever.”
The number of granted legal aid in welfare benefits cases plummeted from 91,431 in the period between 2012-13 to just 478 cases in 2017-18.
It was also one of the areas highlighted by the recent UN report on poverty in Britain.
“People should never be expected to navigate a complex appeals process all by themselves. That can force some to give up their claim altogether after a wrong initial decision. Others endure months of stress trying to prepare their own case. It’s bad now but will be even more difficult after Universal Credit is rolled out.
“Cuts to early legal advice have been a false economy. Ensuring that people are armed with expert legal advice to take on incorrect benefits decisions will not only help people get the financial support they are entitled to, it should make it less likely that flawed decision takes place in the first place, which would be good for the individuals themselves, and help to tackle the tens of millions of pounds spent on administering appeals against flawed decisions.”
Legal groups welcomed the policy with open arms, calling it an “important commitment”.
— Young Labour Lawyers (@YoungLabLaw) December 4, 2018
In danger of getting missed, but this is a really important commitment from Labour.
Benefits decisions are often unfair – the majority of those challenged at tribunal are overturned but without legal aid to support them, claimants are left to challenge the state by themselves https://t.co/Q5v94rI3Rx
— Ian Browne (@ianjbrowne) December 4, 2018
“Just like access to healthcare, access to justice shouldn’t be based upon the depths of your pockets. It should be the right of every citizen.”
— Young Legal Aid Lawyers (@YLALawyers) December 4, 2018
Published figures have shown that legal advice actually reduced governmental costs, resolving problems earlier for all those involved without things spiralling into lengthy and costly cases. In 2011 Citizens Advice calculated that for every £1 of legal aid expenditure on benefits advice, the state could save up to £8.80.
Labour added that the policy would support appeals of “cases with merit”, while other cases would be discouraged. The result would be better legal support for vulnerable claimants and reduced workloads for Tribunals.
Joana Ramiro is a reporter for Left Foot Forward. You can follow her on Twitter for all sorts of rants here.
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