Willy Bach on the latest government driven assault on legal aid funding
Today in the Lords, I will ask the Legal Aid Minister, Lord McNally, why the Legal Services Commisssion (LSC) has decided to cease funding the Advice Services Alliance (ASA), the Law Centre Network (LCN), and the Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ) Citizens’ Advice Bureau (CAB) from 1st April this year. The total loss will be just over £650,000 per year, and obviously will affect all three organisations to a serious degree.
It needs to be emphasised right away that all three of these bodies enjoy the highest respect from all who work in our legal system – at whatever level. It is accepted that the work they have done for many years has been of huge and lasting value to many thousands of citizens faced with legal problems. It is obvious too that they would not have been able to perform in this way if it wasn’t for government funding grants, given without pause over a long period of time – 33 years in the case of LCN.
Taking them briefly, one by one:
The RCJ Advice Bureau, run by the CAB, has delivered for over 20 years a frontline free legal advice service to ‘Self Represented Parties’ (SRP) who bring or defend civil claims and family matters across England and Wales, including County Courts, High Court, and the Court of Appeal. This advice prepares unrepresented parties for court hearings, and ensures procedure and forms are correctly followed. Not surprisingly, it is a very popular service with all who work in the civil and family courts. But it stands to lose £254,700 per year.
The ASA is the central body to whom many advice agencies look to for training, co-ordination and direction. Their work over many years has ensured that the agencies carry out their responsibilities in a professional manner, particularly with regard to public money. ASA has already lost about £100,000 per year since 2010 from National Lottery funding, and now it stands to lose a further £252,000 in one fell swoop. No wonder the future looks uncertain for this outstanding organisation. Its very existence may now be at risk.
Last but not least is the LCN, which is responsible for individual Law Centres, who rely on it for, among other things, best practice, advice, developing purchase schemes, resource sharing, implementing cost saving, reserve sharing; in fact everything that make Law Centres a crucial part of our legal system, so poor and disadvantaged people can get access to justice. There surely must be a significant role for the LCN, even with the much reduced scope of Legal Aid. It stands to lose over £148,000 per year.
Taking the impact on the three organisations together, this crude move clearly shows the government’s policy towards social welfare law and access to justice generally. It is something Ministers clearly do not find important. Coming at the same time as the overhaul of the welfare system, it is hard to see the decision as anything other than a deliberate attack on principles held dear for many, many years.
Lord Willy Bach is backbench Labour Peer and was previously Shadow Justice Minister in the Lords
Published 29th January 2013