As we reported from theguardian.com ” There is a quip that says our justice system is open to all – just like the Ritz hotel is. Quite rightly, we are proud that access to healthcare in this country doesn’t depend on the state of your bank balance. The same should be the case when it comes to access to justice. But all too often, especially following the Conservatives’ deep cuts to legal aid, it isn’t. Those legal aid cuts are an attack on our citizens’ hard-won rights. When people can’t afford to defend their basic rights, then those rights are worth nothing more than the paper they are written on.
Cuts have left vulnerable people without the legal support they need when faced with a rogue landlord, a difficult family breakup, or Theresa May’s “hostile environment”. But of all the cuts to legal aid, the slashing of advice for ill and disabled people unfairly denied their benefits is one of the cruellest. It creates the shameful situation where people are first denied the financial support to which they are legally entitled and then must struggle through a complex appeal without legal advice, causing further stress and anxiety.
Under the Tories, legal advice for welfare benefits cases has been cut by an eye-watering 99%. It was provided to 91,000 people in 2013 in England and Wales, the year before the Conservative-led government’s legal aid reforms. But just 478 people received it last year.
These cuts come at a time when that support is needed more than ever. The UN’s special rapporteur on poverty recently labelled the Tories’ welfare cuts as “punitive, mean-spirited and often callous”. He also noted that legal aid cuts meant many could not “afford to challenge benefit denials or reductions and are thus effectively deprived of their human right to a remedy”.
It is bad now but is set to become even worse under universal credit. Yet when people do appeal benefits decisions, two-thirds of decisions are overturned. That is why I am announcing today that the next Labour government will restore legal aid for making benefit appeals.
Arming people with expert legal advice to challenge incorrect benefits decisions will not only help them get the financial support they are entitled to; it should also reduce the likelihood of flawed decisions being made in the first place. That would be good for the individuals themselves and would help to reduce the tens of millions of pounds of public money spent each year on administering appeals against flawed decisions.
The Conservative government should now follow suit and restore this funding as part of its own review into its legal aid reforms, due by Christmas. There are already fears that this review will be another missed opportunity. It must not be. Now is the time for the Tories to begin to undo the damage they have caused to legal aid.
The Labour-initiated Bach commission on access to justice outlined the direction in which the government needs to go. The Conservatives’ review should follow its recommendation to boost funding for early legal advice.
Legal aid has often been smeared by its political opponents as being about feeding “fat-cat lawyers”. The cost effectiveness of early legal advice shows that could not be further from the truth. Under the Conservative cuts, the total number of public-funded legal advice cases – not just relating to welfare benefits – has fallen by 450,000, but the savings made amount to less than 1% of the Ministry of Justice’s budget. And leading experts have labelled cuts to early legal advice a false economy, with investment in early legal help not only paying for itself but saving the state money elsewhere. Where early legal help is not available worsening legal problems can escalate, putting pressure on the courts and creating knock-on costs for the public purse as people suffer poor health, homelessness or get into a spiral of debt.
By Richard Burgon MP is the shadow secretary of state for justice
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