When the Justice Secretary launched his green paper proposing swingeing cuts in legal aid it looked as if not–for-profit advice centres, such as the Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB), which draw much of their funding from the legal aid budget, would suffer severe collateral damage.
According to the CAB, last year more than 300 of their specialist case workers – paid for by legal aid funding in social welfare law – dealt with over 40,000 welfare benefit cases, almost 60,000 debt cases, over 9,000 housing case and 3,000 employment cases, accounting for over 20% of all publicly funded cases in these topic areas. They calculated that, if the cuts went ahead as planned, they, along with other voluntary sector providers, would lose up to 92 per cent of their funding for the provision of specialist advice on legal matters. In a survey of 106 Bureaux in December 2010, over half said that the proposed legal aid cuts would pose a real risk to the continuation of their local advice service as a whole.
In February CAB Chief Executive Gillian Guy said: “We are deeply concerned that planned cuts to legal aid will seriously damage access to justice for our clients, and seriously damage our ability to provide specialist advice for the most vulnerable. Every year thousands of our clients need help from civil legal aid services at moments of real need. If people can’t access legal help, the consequences can be dire – spiralling debt, homelessness, family breakdown, domestic violence, depression.” She said that continuing economic uncertainty, cuts to public services and the biggest shake-up of welfare benefits for decades would all generate an increased need for advice on social welfare law issues in the future. She added: “If the legal aid cuts go ahead, many of the most vulnerable members of our society will be overwhelmed by devastating problems because they will have nowhere to turn for help.”
But here it would seem that the law of unintended consequences had kicked in. At the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, Ken Clarke acknowledged the validity of these fears and promised to address them. He said: “On citizens advice bureaux and other forms of general advice, I hope to be able to say something on Second Reading—I am making advances, but we will see how much we can come forward with.” He was as good as his word. Referring to the future of not-for-profit advice centres, at Second Reading he agreed that they do important work in providing quality, worthwhile advice of the kind required by very many people. He went on to say: “We are working with the sector and across Government to ensure that the Government reforms help to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the advice services available to the public, and we will provide up to £20 million of additional funding in this financial year to help achieve that. We are also, of course, mindful of the impact of reforms beyond this financial year and will continue to consider the issues arising from that.”
In response to this U-turn CAB’s Gillian Guy gave two cheers. She said: “Ken Clarke deserves real praise for this extra money for free, independent advice services. It will go some way towards ensuring that vulnerable people can continue to get the advice they need.” But she added: “However, Citizens Advice remains very concerned about the legal aid bill…The problem is not just that the cuts are so deep – what’s left of civil legal aid will be inaccessible for too many people and unworkable for too many advice providers.”