Labour will aim to reverse justice cuts in deprived areas by funding more ‘people’s law centres’ to help people who can’t afford lawyers, HuffPost UK can reveal.
Despite increasing levels of domestic abuse, debt, homelessness, evictions and welfare disputes, a record number of people represented themselves in court last year, with a rise of 520% since 2011.
Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said Labour wanted to “empower the communities most affected by Conservative cuts” to defend their rights.
Jeremy Corbyn’s party says the sharp decline in access to justice means there is an urgent need for not-for-profit free legal advice and has started to draw up a blueprint for change should it win the next election.
The law centres that still exist offer legal representation to those who cannot afford it, but cuts since 2010 have seen parts of the UK landscape turn into legal aid deserts.
There are just 43 law centres, down from 63 in 2005, and they are unevenly distributed with 22 outside of London, with just four in the North East, five in the North West and four in the Midlands.
The number of not-for-profit legal advice centres overall has more than halved from around 3,226 in 2005 to 1,462 by 2015, with former justice secretary Chris Grayling ceasing almost all funding with the introduction of 2013′s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO).
Burgon said Labour would offer “a serious boost” in resources to law centres that see them become “a key training ground” for new lawyers “from their communities representing their communities”.
While the party has not yet committed to a specific figure, Burgon is working with the Law Centres Network to draw up a new plan and will announce the move at the party’s annual conference in Liverpool on Monday.
He told HuffPost UK: “Time and again I hear how serious social problems such as homelessness, soaring personal debt or reliance on food banks could have been avoided by early legal intervention.
“Labour wants to empower the communities most affected by Conservative cuts to be able to defend their rights and fight back against unjust legal decisions that can all too easily spiral into costly social problems as people lose their homes or jobs.”
Burgon added that early legal advice saves money for the public purse, a claim backed up by a 2013 PwC assessment, which said law centres had saved the Treasury between £212m and £247m.
“I want to see each and every law centre getting a serious boost to the number of lawyers they have and becoming a key training ground for a new generation of lawyers from their communities and representing their communities,” he added.
“We are committed to boosting the role of law centres throughout the country so that communities can have better access to legal support. That means not only more staff for existing law centres but setting up new law centres including special units based in the heart of the community for example in food banks, nurseries or health clinics.”
Julie Bishop, director of the Law Centres Network, has welcomed Labour’s announcement, telling HuffPost: “For 48 years, law centres have been using the law to help disadvantaged people protect their homes and livelihoods.
“We see every day how years of austerity policies have hit ordinary people hard – and then weakened their ability to challenge the everyday injustices these policies generate.
“Community-based legal assistance is a key part of our social safety net, and we welcome Labour’s commitment to bolster it.”