We must better understand and support the work legal aid lawyers do
Early access to legal advice can stop problems spiralling. Shadowing legal aid lawyers shows how vital their work is, says Karen Buck
As summers go, this one is marked by more political uncertainty than most. There will definitely be a new prime minister but beyond that, who knows? It is an extraordinary, febrile situation. Yet even while Brexit, leadership contests and possible elections dominate the news, it is crucial that we don’t lose sight of the real struggles our constituents are having as they get on with their lives – one crucial area relates to access to justice. What is certain is that by the end of the summer we will have many tens of thousands of people in need of legal help who are effectively prevented from receiving it.
To raise awareness of this, Young Legal Aid Lawyers and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid are running a joint campaign: #TakeYourMPtoWork. We are pairing MPs with their local law centres and legal advice clinics throughout the summer and into the autumn and asking them to walk a mile in a junior lawyer’s footsteps to see first-hand why comprehensive early legal advice is vital. With over 40 MPs signed up to date, our plan is to have 100 visits arranged by the end of the summer recess.
Why are we doing this? The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) intended to reduce the legal aid budget by £450m in today’s terms. In actuality, the cuts went far further than that. Spending on legal aid has shrunk by more than £1bn in five years – more than twice as much as was expected. By 2019-2020 the Ministry of Justice will have seen cuts to its budget of 40% - the deepest of any government department. But what does that mean in real terms?
'Spending on legal aid has shrunk by more than £1bn in five years – more than twice as much as was expected'
From special educational needs and community care, to disrepair problems and family breakdowns, advice was given free of charge under the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949. LASPO cut legal aid for housing, benefits, debt, employment, immigration and family law, hitting vulnerable people the hardest. The number of people given early legal help fell from 573,000 in 2012/2013 to just 140,000 in 2017/2018, with only 351 disabled people being given legal aid for welfare cases in 2017/2018.
As part of the LASPO Post-Implementation Review published in February, the government committed to piloting early legal advice in one area of social welfare law. Early legal advice is the bread and butter work of law centres and legal aid clinics. Without it, relatively simple problems are left to escalate, and larger problems cost more money to fix – the tab for which will often ultimately be picked up by the NHS and/or local authorities. Prevention is better than cure, and the 2018 report by Ipsos Mori for the Law Society indicated that restoring early legal help would save the taxpayer money, with more problems being resolved significantly faster. The government must commit to a comprehensive early legal advice pilot in several locations and in several areas of law.
We want MPs to see that early problem solving in action. We need them to recognise that social welfare problems are interlinked and require expert help at an early stage to be unpicked efficiently and at minimal cost to the state. Some visits have already taken place, with MPs learning about the fantastic work Young (and not quite so young!) Legal Aid Lawyers do on a daily basis. They found out about how early advice can stop legal and practical problems escalating for our constituents. We will also be aiming for a parliamentary debate in the autumn where MPs who take part in our campaign can draw upon what they have seen on the #LegalAidFrontline.
We are very grateful to the MPs who have already signed up for taking the time to get involved and hope that they learned more about access to justice and early advice. Meanwhile we welcome anyone else who wants to take part, so please get in touch!
Karen Buck is Labour MP for Westminster North and Chair of the APPG on Legal Aid