A call to action on Legal Aid

ViewsApril 11th, 2012

The Legal Aid, Sentencing & Punishment of Offenders Bill will return to Parliament on 17th April with an unprecedented 11 significant amendments from the Lords and Government concessions. Clearly indicating the Lords distaste, at what the Law Society has described as ‘an ill-conceived and damaging Bill’; which has been purposively designed to restrict access to legal aid for some of the most vulnerable members of society, as a means to bring down the budget deficit.

Legal Aid is currently provided in a range of cases including criminal representation. However, the legal aid aspect of the bill has largely focused on what is described as social welfare law. Everyday legal assistance that enables the ordinary person facing difficult circumstances, to access advice on issues such as debt, housing matters, welfare benefits, employment, private family law, eg child contact, etc. Alongside specialist immigration and asylum advice to enable people to access their rights and seek justice under International Treaties.

Despite the Lords vote to ensure that unrestricted access to justice is embedded within the Bill as an underlying legal aid principle. There is a real concern that the Government could still choose to reject this and other Lords amendments on financial grounds. Thus the right to free legal advice can no longer be taken for granted.

Notwithstanding this, evidence from the King’s College, London report, Unintended Consequences: the cost of the Government’s Legal Aid Reforms, suggests that the government’s proposed £350 million legal aid cuts will not only incur new ‘knock-on’ costs of at least £139m for the taxpayer. But will also,

  • reduce community cohesion and  increase criminality,
  • leave families, the unemployed, the elderly and infirm with no access to justice, and
  • simply move human costs and misery to Local Authorities, devolved administrations and other Government departments.

The Bills focus on the consumerisation of legal services and saving costs may well be a politically expedient solution but the reality is it would undoubtedly lead to miscarriages of justice and incredibly negative outcomes for vulnerable people. The Government is seeking to retain powers to deny clients face- to- face advice, which is completely unethical. The use of a telephone helpline is simply not viable for this client group. Being unable to speak English or Welsh when accessing legal services can not only be a frightening and disempowering experience, but could also lead to dangerous misunderstandings about individuals’ circumstances. Appropriate face to face support from a qualified and experienced legal representative is therefore essential in complex immigration cases, to ensure that vital information is not overlooked or missed.”

Mike Lewis, Chief Executive Officer, Welsh Refugee Council

Whilst the Government has stated that legal aid will remain available to assist an applicant in preparing their asylum claim; our experience is that the fear, misunderstanding, disorientation and cultural dislocation affecting asylum seekers and victims of trafficking means that crucial disclosures often deviate from the proscribed norms of the asylum process, the national referral mechanism for victims of trafficking- and legal aid procedures. It is therefore crucial that such vulnerable individuals are able to access appropriate legal advice at the right time. Horrified by the consequences of war and abuse throughout the world, the UK Government has signed various International Treaties to uphold the rights of Children, Trafficking Victims and Refugees. Without access to justice how can individuals forced or manipulated into coming to the UK ever receive the protection and care that these treaties require.

As a member of the Justice for All Campaign the Welsh Refugee Council, will be writing to all MP’s in Wales urging them to support all the Lords and Government amendments’ on behalf of our clients to ensure that no person is discriminated when seeking access to legal aid. We would urge you to find out more and do the same.

Sign up to the Sound Off for Justice campaign

Daisy Cole is Head of Influencing and PR, and Child Policy at the Welsh Refugee Council


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