A single mother battling against a dodgy landlord who refuses to tackle the damp affecting her baby’s health. A young family forced to skip meals after a flawed benefits decision. A parent worried they’ll not be able to see their child after a difficult divorce.
No-one wants to find themselves in these desperate situations. As a society we have to guarantee that those who do can access the legal support they need.
Without that legal help the rights that we have - often hard-won by social justice campaigners across the decades - are not worth the paper they are written on.
That’s why the fightback to get the government to reverse its disastrous legal aid reforms is mounting. Those 2013 cuts left hundreds of thousands of people unable to defend their rights in areas as fundamental as housing, employment, immigration and welfare benefits. The number of civil legal aid cases just before the legal aid cuts was 574,000. This has plummeted by three quarters to 147,000 now. In some areas the fall is even greater, with the numbers receiving state funded legal help in welfare benefits cases down 99.5%, the government recently acknowledged.
The slashing of legal aid needs to be seen as part of the same package of cuts that have created such harm in much of our healthcare and education systems. We have a Tory government attacking people’s living standards and then deliberately undermining their ability to defend themselves against those very same attacks.
All this comes at a terrible cost. When access to justice is denied, inequality worsens and the most vulnerable are further excluded from society. As Amnesty International said in its damning 2016 report, Cuts that Hurt, “We are in danger of creating a two-tier civil justice system, open to those who can afford it, but increasingly closed to the poorest and most in need of its protection.”
In continuing unabated with its legal aid policies, this cruel government dismisses not only organisations such as Amnesty International but the warning of then most senior judge, Lord Thomas, who said last year “our justice system has become unaffordable to most”.
Of course, this government loves to whip up the idea of legal aid being about funding the lavish lifestyle of fat-cat lawyers. But I visited a community law centre in London earlier this week and saw what a deliberately malicious stereotype this is. There, seven lawyers were doing their best to represent the 250,000 citizens of the borough. Each lawyer earns around £35,000 per year. I heard cases of families living in cars and of people taking sleeping tablets to block out the pain of being cold and hungry. But thanks to that law centre at least people are in a position to take legal action to reverse the wrong decisions that can lead to such tragic circumstances.
Worryingly the numbers of such legal aid providers is diminishing. Figures I obtained from the government last week show that the number of not-for-profit providers doing legal aid work is down by nearly 80% in some areas since 2010.
Faced with growing evidence of its failed policies, the government has been forced to review its legal aid cuts. The review will conclude by July. All who believe in social justice now have a crucial opportunity to ensure that the Government uses this review to fundamentally repair the damage caused by its legal aid reforms, rather than simply applying a sticking plaster to a broken system.
Spending on legal aid has already fallen by hundreds of millions more than the government’s initial target of £410m. As Conservative MP Bob Neill, the Chair of the Justice Select Committee, recently stated that ‘we have now removed more than the system can take and should rectify the anomalies as soon as possible’’.
That is why I welcome the campaign launched this week by the Law Society calling for legal aid for early advice from a lawyer to be reinstated for housing and family cases. Early legal help is vital advice given prior to any legal representation in a court. It’s the kind of advice that can be obtained at low cost to the state from Law Centres or local lawyers working on low fixed fees, for example £157 for a housing case.
Removing early legal advice is a false economy. When people facing life-changing decisions don’t get the early legal support they need, this can end up costing the state much more further down the line, as cases escalate into expensive family court battles, people are forced to represent themselves and end up clogging up our courts, or as people lose their homes, jobs or their health falters with severe costs implications for society.
Just as early medical interventions can stop diseases becoming much more serious, so early legal help can address problems before they escalate. A Citizens Advice study estimated that every £1 of legal aid spent on housing advice can potentially save the state £2.34; for debt advice its £2.98; and on employment advice it can be £7.13. As part of its review the government must publish a cost-benefit analysis on the wider impact of reducing early legal help.
Labour is committed to immediately re-establishing early legal help for all those cases dealt with by the family courts. The government should make the same commitment. Ministry of Justice figures show that since legal aid was removed for many family law cases, nearly two-thirds of those in private family court cases now have no access to a lawyer and are forced to represent themselves.
Given the mounting crisis of homelessness and the Universal Credit fiasco, Labour will also be joining with civil society over the coming months to demand that the government uses its review of legal aid to restore early legal help for housing and welfare cases.
If the government is serious about using its legal review to repair the severe damage that its cuts are causing, then proper funding to restore early legal help must be guaranteed.
Richard Burgon is the shadow justice secretary and Labour MP for Leeds East