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Are Legal Aid cuts against our human rights?

It’s been approximately four years since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) came into force. The Act essentially wiped out legal aid for debt, immigration and welfare benefits law. Legal aid practitioners have long felt frustrated with the impact on these cuts and the knock-on effect they have on our ability to help clients in other areas of law, particularly housing.

Luckily, it’s not just legal aid lawyers who have noticed the impact of the legal aid cuts. Amnesty International have recently published a report looking at the impact of legal aid cuts and how that affects our human rights.

The report focuses on the impact on three main groups: migrants and refugees; children and young people; and people with other vulnerabilities (such as mental and physical health problems and learning difficulties). It focuses on three main areas of law: immigration, private family law and welfare benefits.

Amnesty International concluded that legal aid cuts have had a disproportionate impact on the groups of people focused on in the report. The report highlights the Government’s short-sightedness and lack of joined-up thinking, something that several legal aid lawyers and organisations have highlighted already. But is this report enough to make a change?

At Hodge Jones & Allen we frequently advise and represent vulnerable people, people who claim benefits, and people whose immigration status is uncertain. However, due to the legal aid cuts our hands are tied. For example, we regularly represent people in possession proceedings who are at risk of losing their home due to rent arrears. Often the arrears have built up as a result of a series of problems relating to their benefits, particularly Housing Benefit. These problems can be caused by the Housing Benefit department just as easily as they can arise as a result of mistakes made by the person claiming the benefit. However, there is no legal aid available to advise on welfare benefits (apart from some certain types of higher appeals), therefore we are unable to address the root cause of these problems and resolve the issues with the arrears. At best we can refer the clients to a non-profit organisation, who do their very best to assist but even still housing benefits may not be resolved in time. It is well known that Housing Benefit Departments can take a substantial amount of time to process their applications. Without our assistance, or some other legal assistance, our clients are unable to resolve their benefit issues and some, unfortunately, run the risk of being evicted. We are aware that there has been a sharp rise in homelessness. If we had further funding to assist non-profit organisations to deal with benefit issues then there may be fewer evictions and the rate of homelessness may go down.

The Amnesty International report points out that these issues are fundamentally human rights issues and that international law states that legal aid should be available when it is necessary to ensure access to justice. The report clearly shows that the legal aid cuts were brought in as a cost-saving measure which means that there was very little consideration of how the cuts would affect vulnerable individuals. What is more important? Stopping vulnerable persons/families from being homeless or cutting costs?

Will the government re-consider the cuts imposed or are they beyond reproach? The report calls on the government to urgently review LASPO. The Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, has indicated that a review of LASPO will take place in the near future. This was recently confirmed by justice minister Sir Oliver Heald at a meeting of an All-Party Parliamentary Group which took place on 17 January, where he also indicated that the review should take place by April 2018.

But will this be too late? We have already noted that the numbers of persons who are homeless have risen by 16%. By 2018, the numbers would have increased even more! Will the government consider the devastating impact of these cuts and restore funding to those who desperately need it or will they create further cuts just for the sake of saving more money?