Vulnerable people often require legal advice to access the welfare that is their right. Legal aid cuts threaten this, argue LSE academics
Legal aid cover should not be cut before the new Universal Credit is fully implemented and a 'polluter pays' clause should be introduced to subsidise the cost burdens of legal aid, academics at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) have today (Tuesday 1 November) advised the House of Lords.
Professor Deborah James and Dr Alice Forbess, who are conducting ethnographic research in collaboration with Community Links, a charity based in Newham, East London, were asked to brief the House of Lords on their research. Their paper, Rights, Welfare and Law. Legal Aid Advocacy in Austerity Britain, presents three case studies of vulnerable people and makes a series of recommendations to Government.
"Legal service providers offset systemic failure and make possible access to justice in several key ways", write the academics. "Legal aid advisers negotiate directly on behalf of vulnerable clients whose cases have merit but who are unable competently to represent themselves. Such advocacy plays a key role in ensuring the implementation of laws and procedures. We observed several cases in which the advisers challenged government agencies to fulfil their legal obligations when they had failed to do so. Had this support not been in place, clients would have lost appeals and faced the possibility of financial ruin through no fault of their own."
The briefing makes several recommendations including that:
Legal aid cover should be retained for all welfare benefits appeals in order to prevent perverse incentives - to delay the addressing of problems until their are eventually deemed eligible for legal aid
A 'polluter plays' clause should be introduced to subsidise cost burdens as much legally aided work is the result of systemic failure in government offices
Legal aid cover for debt, housing and welfare benefit appeals should be retained for disadvantaged young people between the ages of 18 and 25
Legal aid cover for debt, housing and welfare benefit appeals should be retained for people diagnosed with severe mental illness even if their income is above the new, stricter thresholds.
The scope of legal aid cover should be drastically cut only after the new Universal Credit system has been implemented.
The briefing presents three case studies – one relating to housing and the impending homelessness of a young person, one on a man who had experienced problems with benefits payments, and one examining how a woman was rendered homeless as a result of a trivial debt of around £700.
"The case studies we present illustrate in various ways the wisdom of early intervention," said the researchers. "Although the new Universal Credit aims to eliminate systemic factors known to create such escalation its implementation is expected to take a decade. Cutting legal aid support before the new arrangements are firmly in place means that, next year, people like those in our case studies would be left to fend for themselves, a task to which they are patently unequal. Even those who are relatively system-literate and proactive can face a losing battle if their circumstances are tipped into a spiral of accruing rent arrears as a result of personal crisis or simple inexperience."
Read the full briefing here
Contact: Professor Deborah James, 020 7955 7215, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Alice Forbess, 020 7955 7215, email@example.com
1 November 2011