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Labour vows to restore legal aid

JANUARY 21, 2020

Justice is the forgotten pillar of the welfare state and cuts to legal aid have left people unable to defend their most basic rights. Access to health and education are rightly recognised as the right of every citizen. Access to justice should be too.

We welcome Labour’s commitment to restore legal aid funding for people seeking legal advice to appeal benefits decisions, and believe that this is a move that would help to ensure all victims of flawed Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) decisions are able to defend themselves and get the financial support they are entitled to.

Studies show that providing people with early legal advice actually saves the state money as problems are resolved early and avoid spiralling into costly social problems. Citizens Advice has calculated that for every £1 of legal aid expenditure on benefits advice, the state could save £8.80.

Since the coalition government’s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo) came into effect in early 2013, the number of people receiving legal aid to challenge benefit decisions has fallen by a massive 99%. The MoJ spends more than £100m a year on tribunals disputing appeals against benefit decisions. In addition, the DWP has spent more than £100m on Pips and ESA reviews and appeals since October 2015.

More than two-thirds of appeals against DWP decisions on personal independence payments (Pips) and employment support allowance (ESA) are successful, says Labour, adding that those decisions have affected thousands of vulnerable people with illnesses, disabilities or in poor health.

Under the Tories, legal advice for welfare benefits cases has been cut by an eye-watering 99%. It was provided to 91,000 people in 2013 in England and Wales, the year before the Conservative-led government’s legal aid reforms. But just 478 people received it last year.

Access to justice should not only be available to those who can afford it but the Conservatives’ deep cuts to legal aid has meant exactly that. Richard Burgon MP, the shadow justice secretary sees the cuts to legal aid as ‘an attack on citizens’ hard-won rights and states that when people can’t afford to defend their basic rights, then those rights are worth nothing more than the paper they are written on.’

Ideological cuts made in the name of austerity have disproportionately fallen on those least able to bear the brunt and have left vulnerable people without the legal support they need. And it’s not just Labour who recognise that access to justice is a basic human right that should be afforded to all. The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, has warned that cuts to legal aid mean that many can no longer afford “to challenge benefit denials or reductions” and were “thus effectively deprived of their human right to a remedy”.

Flawed benefits decisions have created hardship, stress and anxiety for people often already in desperate situations. Yet legal support against benefits decisions has fallen off a cliff edge – down 99% – at a time when people need it more than ever.

Burgon believes that “People should never be expected to navigate a complex appeals process all by themselves. That can force some to give up their claim altogether after a wrong initial decision. Others endure months of stress trying to prepare their own case. It’s bad now but will be even more difficult after Universal Credit is rolled out.

“Cuts to early legal advice have been a false economy. Ensuring that people are armed with expert legal advice to take on incorrect benefits decisions will not only help people get the financial support they are entitled to, it should make it less likely that flawed decision takes place in the first place, which would be good for the individuals themselves, and help to tackle the tens of millions of pounds spent on administering appeals against flawed decisions.”

The Labour party has already pledged to restore legal aid funding for advice in all housing cases, reversing far-reaching cuts imposed by the government five years ago. It has also promised to re-establish early advice entitlements in the family courts and to review the legal aid means tests.

In our blog ‘The Time for Change is now!’ we set out how the current system is failing the many and what the government should do to repair the damage already done by reversing the worst cuts so people can access the legal advice they need.

We believe that the government should restore this funding as part of its own review into its legal aid reforms, due by Christmas. This review must not be another missed opportunity.

The government must:

  • Restore access and boost funding for early advice 
  • Restore access to welfare-related advice, and 
  • Simplify the criteria for those who need legal aid to access it.  

You can read more here about Labour’s pledge to restore legal aid to help people challenge flawed benefit decisions.

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