Citizens Advice Bureaux Chief Executive Gillian Guy has delivered a hard-hitting and emotional plea to the government to "pause for breath" and rethink its plans for legal aid cuts.
Cuts to the legal aid budget announced in last month's Comprehensive Spending Review are set to top £350m by 2014-15, and could yet increase if the government takes social welfare law 'out of scope' for civil legal aid.
"We know from the experiences of our clients how difficult it can be for some people to access to the legal help they need.," said Ms Guy. "If people can't access legal help, the consequences can be dire -- spiralling debt, homelessness, family breakdown, domestic violence, depression.
"Free quality advice and representation is essential in any democracy claiming to provide access to justice. We all benefit from living in a society where we can uphold our rights and have a means of enforcing them. Yet well over half of all those who experience legal problems fail to get the help they need -- that's 2.3m people being let down by the system. Withdrawal of legal aid for social welfare advice or big reductions in provision with no alternative on offer would leave the most vulnerable overwhelmed by problems with nowhere to turn, and do nothing to address the significant unmet demand that already exists."
Warning that the problem of access to legal help was worsening, she continued: "Legal aid is not a deadweight on the state: to put the legal aid budget in perspective it's only two weeks worth of public funding to the NHS [i.e., £2.1bn per annum]. Yet the savings to the state and society are on a scale of up to £10 for every pound put in, if interventions occur early enough to save costs to other public services."
While conceding the current legal aid system is too complex, with too much bureaucracy involving unnecessary costs, the test of successful reform must be to find new ways to deliver more with existing funding, not less. "If social welfare is taken out of scope for civil legal aid with nothing to replace it -- the reform will have failed. People will always need access to advice when they are faced with losing their home or spiralling debts. If these advice services are not funded from civil legal aid budgets they must be funded from somewhere else or vulnerable people will suffer."
Extending partnerships with other agencies such as Shelter, Law Centres and solicitors' firms, could increase the value of the services provided she said; and this, allied to a greater focus on prevention and early intervention, could reduce the need for more expensive legal help further down the line.
Her subordinate bureau chief in Wolverhampton, Jeremy Vanes, warned that CAB services are more important now than ever, particularly in the employment field, where he says hard-hit employers are looking to save cash anyway they can by sacking staff.
He said: "The number of times we deal with inquiries about dismissal has grown substantially in the last year.
"Redundancy is a bit long-winded and costs more. Dismissal is a very cheap way of getting rid of people.
"Several cases suggest that employers who ought to be using redundancy have gone down the route of dismissal."
Mr Vanes said an example of an unfair redundancy situation he dealt with recently involved a man sacked following a minor forklift truck accident. The man sought help from the CAB on his redundancy rights, including the right to redundancy pay and consultation, and secured compensation for unfair dismissal.
- Civil legal aid facing 'devastation' after £154m cut (The Lawyer)
- Legal aid cuts will exclude most vulnerable from access to justice, Citizens Advice Chief Executive warns (CAB)
- Public spending: banned aid (Guardian)
- The 'Big Society' crisis on Cameron's doorstep (Independent)
- Employers avoid redundancy through sacking (Express & Star)
- Redundancy rights (Findlaw.co.uk)
- Unfair dismissal law (Findlaw.co.uk)
- Employment law Q&A (Community)
- Find an employment solicitor (Contact Law)