article on steps by Chesterfield Law Centre and CABs to oppose legal aid cuts with day of action today 10 June 2011.
"Legal Cuts Protest In Chesterfield
Thursday 9th June 2011
It's feared that plans by the Coalition Government to cut legal aid entitlement will hit over 2,410 people in Chesterfield who campaigners say will lose their right to Legal Advice.
Chesterfield Law Centre are leading a campaign in conjunction with Chesterfield Citizens Advice Bureau and Derbyshire Unemployed Workers Centre along with Chesterfield based private practice firms to protest against Government proposals to withdraw legal aid from individuals and families on low incomes living in North East Derbyshire.
The Green Paper proposes that legal advice for social welfare law - housing, welfare benefits, debt, employment, immigration, education, clinical negligence and family breakdown - should generally no longer be provided under legal aid. If it is, the kinds of cases allowed will be severely restricted. Criminal legal aid will be virtually untouched.
Local family solicitors in private practice are very concerned at the proposed cuts to legal aid and say it will no longer be available for divorce and financial matters, cohabitee property disputes, inheritance claims, applications by a parent for contact with children nor for child abduction cases by a parent.
Charities such as The Law Centre, Citizens Advice and Shelter provide approximately 75% of all social welfare law advice under legal aid contracts. This advice will no longer be provided. Campaigners say that people who need help in these areas are amongst the most vulnerable in society and often require advice on interrelated areas and so benefit from advice that is accessible easily.
They cite a case recently at the Law Centre. Josie (not her real name) suffered problems with her landlord and sought advice. Josie lives on her own with her son living nearby to care for her - she is disabled with limited physical and mobility skills and unable to work due to being in and out hospital.
When she moved out of her private rented home, her landlord refused to return her deposit of over £500. The Landlord accused her of damaging the property. Josie did not damage the property, and the landlord had failed to protect the deposit, as required by law. This was a lot of money to Josie as she is on benefits and she needed this for the deposit on another property. Josie had no option but to borrow £500.00 from her son to pay for the new deposit and believed that her only option was to sue her former Landlord through the courts.
After intervention from the Law Centre's specialist housing adviser, the Landlord agreed to repay the money he owed Josie. Much to Josie's relief she was able to repay her son. The cost of providing this advice to Josie was £174 in legal aid - The Government plans to withdraw legal aid for this type of work.
Tony McIlveen, Senior Solicitor at Chesterfield Law Centre, said "This is bad news for those who have lost their jobs, having problems in making claims for benefits and have multiple debts - all needing free legal advice. This will have a severe impact on people on low incomes living in North Eastern Derbyshire as they would not be able to get free legal advice to enforce their rights in for example, recovering wages owed to them, challenging decisions on benefits entitlement, managing multiple debts and getting repairs carried out in their rented homes."
Experts say that the Green Paper assumes that if legal aid is withdrawn people will be able to get help elsewhere, such as from the National Debtline. They say however, that this organisation does not provide face-to face advice and actually refers clients to advice services funded by legal aid.
It's a double whammy for advice centres who also receive funding from their local authorities. This is already under threat and can certainly not fill the gap left by withdrawing legal aid.
Statistics show that legal aid for welfare benefits advice cost £28.3 million in 2009/10 - which is less than 0.18 per cent of the £16 billion of benefits that went unclaimed.
Research by Citizens Advice shows that for every pound spent on legal aid, the state potentially saves more than twice as much. Without legal advice at an early stage problems are likely to escalate they say and result in heavy expenditure on a range of public services.
Removing legal advice will also have an effect on the system itself as people represent themselves and mean that cases will take longer, be more expensive and cause backlogs in the justice system.
The Green Paper also proposes that people needing legal advice will no longer be able to visit or telephone their local advice service. They will have to be vetted by a national telephone helpline first. Experts fear that, while there is an important role for telephone advice, making it the first point of contact for everyone will restrict access for people with language difficulties, mental health problems or with very complex cases.
The Ministry of Justice has received over 5,000 responses to the Green Paper from an incredibly diverse range of organisations; national advice networks, professional bodies, national and local charities, judges, lawyers, specialist advisers to MPs, disability groups, human rights organisations and consumer groups to name a few.
Not one of them supports the proposals to reduce legal aid for social welfare law.
They argue that the proposals are lacking in evidence, misunderstand the extent and range of legal advice needs, underestimate the potential impact on the poorest and most vulnerable, and risk inflicting collateral damage on the legal advice sector (especially charities) and the justice system.
Furthermore, they say, the Green Paper does nothing to address the poor decisions and inefficiencies which cause the need for advice in the first place.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Chesterfield Law Centre, Chesterfield Citizens Advice Bureau and Derbyshire Unemployed Workers Centre are members of the Justice for All alliance which believes that everyone should be treated fairly under the law, no matter who you are, how much money you have or where you live.
They are asking anyone who wants to protest against the proposals to :
•Visit the stall at New Market Square on Friday 10th june 2011, 9am - 1pm during their 'Day Of Action' to sign their petition.
•Call in or telephone Chesterfield Law Centre, Derbyshire Unemployed Workers Centre or your nearest CAB to sign the petition during their opening times.
Or, if you want to know more about the Green Paper, please contact Teresa Waldron on 01246 550674.
What does Chesterfield Law Centre do?
Chesterfield Law Centre, set up in 1989, is a registered charity and a not-for-profit legal practice. It has a team of solicitors and advisers, supported by support staff and volunteers to provide free high quality specialist advice and representation in the areas of housing, employment, debt, discrimination and tackling hate and harassment to residents in North Derbyshire.
The organisation is currently funded by Chesterfield Borough Council, Derbyshire County Council, North East Derbyshire District Council, Legal Services Commission, with project funding from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Coalfields Regeneration Trust and the Big Lottery Fund.
What does Chesterfield Citizens Advice Bureau do?
The Chesterfield Citizens Advice Bureau, set up in 1987, is a registered charity and a not-for-profit legal practice. It has a team of advisers, supported by support staff and volunteers to provide free generalist advice and specialist advice in welfare benefits and debt to residents in Chesterfield Borough.
The organization is currently funded by Chesterfield Borough Council, Derbyshire County Council, Legal Services Commission and various project funding. "