The Low Commission

The Low Commission

The Low Commission on the Future of Advice and Legal Support was launched last week. The Commission, chaired by Lord Colin Low, a crossbench peer and former chairman of the Royal National Institute of Blind People, will examine how to cope with deep cuts to legal aid at a time of complex benefits reforms.

The Commission’s work will cover asylum, benefits, community care, debt, education (including special educational needs), employment, housing and immigration. It says it “will take a wide view of its brief, looking at ways of reducing demand for advice and legal support in these areas, as well as investigating new approaches to delivery and funding.”

As an independent commission, the body has no power to compel witnesses to attend but it intends to take evidence from senior lawyers, politicians and welfare advice professionals. Other members of the commission include Amanda Finlay, a former legal services director at the ministry of justice and now a council member of Justice; and Steve Hynes, a former manager of a Citizens Advice Bureau in Manchester and now director of the Legal Action Group. The commission is backed by several charities, including the Barrow Cadbury Trust.

Lord Low said: “A number of advice centres are already closing so the cuts are already taking effect. We are faced with a perfect storm of reduced provision resulting from the cuts in legal aid and local authority funding and an increase in demand for advice and support resulting from reforms of welfare benefits and other austerity measures. We want to find solutions to the problems. We hope some of this work will find its way into manifestoes for the next election.”

One outcome of LASPO is that financial support will soon disappear for most cases involving divorce, child custody, clinical negligence, employment, immigration, housing, debt, benefits and education. According to the government’s own estimate, 623,000 people will lose out on advice. As a result the judiciary will be faced with an expected increase in what are referred to as “self-represented litigants.”

Shona Alexander, the chief executive of Newcastle’s Citizens Advice bureau, told the ‘Guardian’ that she was already turning away many people seeking help. “Our legal aid contract for both welfare benefits and debt advice ends on 31 March and will not be renewed,” she explained. “Legal aid funding is paid only when cases are closed, so we are having to stop taking on any new, complicated cases because they will not be completed before the end of the contract.”

She said: “Requests for welfare benefits advice here have increased dramatically during the last few weeks, as clients are being notified of impending cuts in housing benefit and other changes. Practically every day there’s a queue outside the bureau and once the waiting room is full we have to turn people away…Some of these people are really vulnerable. They don’t understand what’s happening to them.”

The Commission will meet with experts and users at a series of meetings and roundtables and welcomes written submissions of evidence to help inform its work. It will consult on its emerging recommendations in September 2013 and will publish its final report in December 2013.

This post was written by:

- who has written 460 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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