by Daphne Liddle
A COALITION of charities and support groups has joined together to fight the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which will effectively deny justice on a thousand-and-one issues to all but the rich.
It will remove dozens of areas where low and middle-income people most need help in getting their rights from eligibility for legal aid.
These include employment issues, welfare issues, family and domestic law, immigration, education and many others.
It will mean that for millions of people their legal rights and entitlements will be just meaningless pieces of paper because they will not be able to take those who offend against them to law.
And it will mean that employers, local authorities and others will know they face no penalties for flouting the law if they grind our faces in the dirt. They know there will be nothing we can do about it.
If the examiners at Atos tell a person who is truly too ill to work that they must seek a job — that person will not be able to afford legal aid to make an appeal.
If a black person is unfairly dismissed, the boss doesn’t need to worry — he may be breaking the law but there is nothing the victim can do about it.
And in a messy divorce case, involving disputed custody of children, the partner who can afford a lawyer will get everything while their former spouse, who has no money, will get nothing.
Landlords who charge a fortune for unsafe, sub-standard accommodation need never fear their tenants can go to law to force them to change.
Those who have wrong judgements made against them by immigration officials, education authorities, benefits authorities, local authorities and so on will just have to put up with it — even if it means they end up losing everything.
A coalition that includes Scope and Shelter has joined forces with Mumsnet and the Fawcett Society to address an open letter to David Cameron and to the deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, urging them to rethink the proposals.
“To cut legal aid at a time of unprecedented changes to welfare support would mean disabled people who fall foul of poor decision-making, red tape or administrative error being pushed even further into poverty as they struggle to manoeuvre the complicated legal system without the necessary expert support they need,” said Richard Hawkes, chief executive of Scope.
Amnesty International has also expressed concerns that the Bill would mean foreign individuals and communities will no longer be able to bring a case against a British multinational company in a British court.
The House of Lords made 11 vital changes to the Bill but the Con-Dem Coalition government has thrown out all but two of them.
Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke has allowed some concessions that will make it easier for victims of domestic violence to claim legal aid — but it will still be more complicated than it used to be.
And he has allowed legal aid to be available in some welfare cases where the law is in dispute.
Certain criminal negligence cases will also be protected from the cuts to legal aid, including children who have suffered lifelong injuries as a result of clinical negligence.
But Clarke has not spared the victims of mesothelioma, who will have to pay their legal costs from any compensation they are awarded. This could leave them with very little left over and discourage them from claiming.
Labour MP Ian Lucas (Wrexham) said the Government’s proposals were “wrong in principle”.
“I did not go into the law as a solicitor myself to take damages away from a dying person, pending the outcome of a claim,” he added.
But despite the opposition, the amendment was overturned by the Government by 292 votes to 256, majority 36.
Another amendment from the Lords that Clarke threw out is that all legal aid claimants should be entitled to a face-to-face interview with a lawyer.
Clarke aims to cut £350 million a year is legal aid for family cases. He said: “We do want more of these cases not to be conducted by lawyers financed by the taxpayer engaging in adversarial litigation about where children are going to live, what maintenance should be paid by one party or the other, or what share of the matrimonial home is going to be owned by one party or the other.”
So it will be wealth — which partner can afford a lawyer — that determines who wins everything.
The housing charity Shelter warned that the Bill will impose devastating cuts on legal aid funding for specialist advice that helps people to solve their housing problems.
Cuts to legal aid for housing issues will take 52,000 cases per year — about 40 per cent of all housing work – out of scope, making an annual saving of £10 million in the short term but increasing costs to the taxpayer down the line and denying access to justice for the most vulnerable in our society.
Child rights group JustRights analysed government data obtained from a series of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. It claims 6,000 children, or 13 per cent of those who receive help with legal-aid costs, will lose it in the reforms.
The areas where child applicants will be affected are primarily immigration, benefits cases, housing and other social-welfare cases.
JustRights co-chairman James Kenrick “We are talking about the most vulnerable children. A lot of them will be 15 and 16, who may be care leavers or in a lot of instances will be living away from their parents.
“In theory if they want to bring a case they will have to represent themselves in court.”