From April 1st 2013 over 600,000 people will lose access to the legal aid system. This will save the government around £350 million, but whilst it is accepted that austerity measures are required, is hitting those who need help the most the best route to take?
These cuts mean that help will only be available in exceptional cases , so it is expected that one in three firms will no longer offer legal aid advice. The Chief Executive of the Citizen Advice Bureaux stated this would result in a justice gap between those who can afford legal aid and those who can’t. A spokesperson for the Legal Aid Practitioners’ Group said members believe that the result of the changes will be an unacceptable devastation for the poor in society. Hundreds of jobs at legal aid firms could disappear and the Citizen Advice Bureaux are also sending out redundancy notices. Shelter will be forced to close a third of their housing advice advice centres with a job loss of between 80 – 100.
The government acknowledges that savings must be made and that legal costs need to be cut, and state that by making these changes they will be able to ban such things as referral fees for ‘ambulance chasing lawyers’ and the many dubious whiplash claims made every day, but will these savings justify the reduced access many poorer people will have to legal help? The British Red Cross has condemned the government’s economies as an assault on “family life”. Legal aid will continue to be provided to those who most need it, such as where domestic violence is involved, where life or liberty is at stake or people risk losing their home. But in situations like divorce, employment cases of unfair dismissal and debt problems where people need advice and help, the aid will be removed.