Legal Aid in the Commons

Legal Aid in the Commons

Liberal Democrat MP Dr Julian Huppert secured a debate on legal aid in the Commons last week. He said it was timely because although the Government consultation, which has received around 5,000 replies, has closed no response has been published.

His main concern was the detrimental effect the proposed cuts would have on the disadvantaged. He said that women will be disproportionately affected by the changes in legal aid as they are more often the recipients of it and less often have their own finances in place. Children and young people will also be disproportionately affected, partly because women make up the majority of primary care givers. Similar concerns apply in relation to disabled people, whether young or old, instancing the Government plan to remove legal aid relating to matters of special educational need. He was pleased that asylum will remain within the scope of legal aid, but extremely concerned that other immigration cases have been excluded. He said: “Even under existing arrangements, immigration legal aid providers are struggling to remain viable; if we confine legal aid to asylum, it is doubtful whether good quality practitioners will continue to be available. There is already a surfeit of poor quality lawyers and advisers working in this field, and we would all benefit from better provision because many of them are not up to scratch.”

Labour MP Yvonne Fovargue quoted the Legal Action Group when she said: “The personal, social and economic consequences of removing access to justice for so many people is unknown and unforgiveable.” A former chief executive of St Helens Citizens Advice for more than 20 years, she deplored the loss of most early intervention advice, with access available solely through a telephone gateway. “I believe that such proposals will disadvantage the most vulnerable in our society—the disabled, the elderly, those on a low income with a pre-paid mobile phone who often ring about debt issues, those with mental health issues, those whose first language is not English and many others” she said. Citizens Advice has produced detailed briefings showing the unintended consequences of the Government’s proposals on social welfare law work. Its cost-benefit analysis makes a strong case for retaining and even strengthening its role. It estimates that if funding were no longer available for these categories of law, at least £172 million of additional costs would accrue for both state and society. MP Jeremy Corbyn said: “The number of cases that are dealt with by legal aid in this country at the moment is 934,000…The cuts being proposed will mean that more than 600,000 people will not have access to legal aid. If we want a fair, decent and just society, everyone must have access to the law.”

After a universally negative critique of the green paper from his fellow MPs, Justice Minister Jonathan Djanogly wound up the session with a stonewall recitation of its contents, without giving away any potential significant concession. But the immutable timetable of Parliamentary affairs did leave one cliff hanger. Much had been made during the debate that domestic violence cannot refer simply to physical violence. Dr Huppert said: “We must all be concerned about people suffering the threat of violence and mental torment. I hope that the Government will take seriously the criticisms that they have received on that point and will clarify and strengthen their definition of domestic violence so that those at risk have access to justice and are protected.” The Minister said: “In the consultation, we proposed that private law family legal aid should continue to be available where there is objective evidence of domestic violence. We have asked for views on what might provide objective evidence and therefore trigger private family law legal aid. We have been giving careful consideration to the points raised in response—.” At which point the Chairman said: “Order. I am afraid that we have run out of time for this debate.” It was time to discuss the Avon Ring Road (M4 Link).

This post was written by:

- who has written 462 posts on Upper Case – The Anya Legal Journal.

Mike Gribbin is a retired Civil Servant with wide experience, including the drafting and implementation of Parliamentary legislation and regulations. He is the editor of “Criminal Offences Handbook”, a uniquely comprehensive guide to more than one thousand ways to fall foul of UK criminal law. He is Editor of the Upper Case Legal Journal and has been writing blog posts for the past eight years.

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