Willy Bach on the impact being felt around Britain of the government's attacks on legal aid support
Next All Fools Day, the provisions of Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) are due to come into force. The joke however, that the Coalition government will be playing on some of our most disadvantaged and vulnerable fellow citizens, many of them disabled, is anything but funny. Rather, it is mean, unfair and cruel; and in some ways, wicked.
So from 1st April 2013, Legal Aid will no longer be available for legal advice on matters of social welfare, sometimes called the Law of Everyday Life, in the fields of welfare benefit, employment, debt, immigration, and the majority of housing law. For the many hundreds of thousands who need such advice, and who up to now have been able to access it, there may well be nowhere to turn to. Law Centres, CABs, and other advice agencies who have provided quality advice for very modest remuneration, may go out of business, as this money is an essential part of their limited income. To add insult to injury, where some limited areas of social welfare law remain in scope, the sole way to get legal advice will be to go through a ‘telephone gateway’ system. Face to face advice, so vital to many who need it will just not be an option.
The result of all this is that access to justice is to be removed from a very large number of people; often the ones who need it most. The cruellest irony is that this appalling attack on those least able to defend themselves will almost certainly not save any public money. That is why I believe the word “wicked” is appropriate.
Labour fought these proposals all the way. In alliance with many Cross Bench peers, as well as a very few Lib Dems and Tories, including the much missed, late Tony Newton,we inflicted 14 defeats on the government, as well as stacking up three draws (with over 200 votes on each side). The government were forced to make a few changes, but the thrust of the policy got through.
In the next few weeks and months, Parliament will have to debate and decide on a number of crucial Statutory Instruments that will set out how Part 1 of the Act is to be implemented. These are of huge significance for those who will be so adversely affected by the legislation. It is our duty to scrutinise each and every order with care, and to vote against them when it is appropriate.
Over the last few months, I have been tweeting constantly on these matters @FightBach. I have also spoken around the country to meetings often made up of people just as horrified by the proposals. From Manchester to Merton, from Southwark to Ipswich, from Coventry and Nottingham to God’s Own City (or Leicester, as it is called), the response has been united.
Ministers think we should move on. Sorry to disappoint them. Part 1 of LASPO remains a disgrace. It demeans our much admired legal system, and makes us a less civilised country. What is the point of a legal aid system if it cannot protect those who need it most? We are duty bound to continue this fight, and I for one look forward to working with people of goodwill from all parties, or none, who are determined that common sense and decency shall prevail.
Lord Willy Bach is backbench Labour Peer, and until earlier this year was Shadow Justice Minister in the Lords
Published 25th October 2012