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Legal aid cuts aren’t just unfair. They will cost more than they save

The Government has dismissed evidence of the false economy of legal aid cuts, yet refused to conduct its own research

The Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill is currently working its way through the Commons. It marks what is probably the most radical shake-up of the legal aid scheme since its inception in 1949. Among the many changes within the Bill, legal aid will no longer be available to victims of clinical negligence, to tenants whose landlords refuse to carry out repairs on their properties (except where there is a risk of “serious harm” to the tenant), or for legal advice on welfare benefits, debt (until the home is at risk) or employment.

These changes are intended to save £350 million, but there is evidence that they will cost more in the long term. The argument is simple: by providing legal advice early on to help resolve debt issues, employment disputes or appeal a wrongful refusal of welfare benefits there is less chance that the problem will escalate, which racks up knock-on costs for the taxpayer. Ultimately if a person loses their job, or cannot keep up with their mortgage repayments and loses their home, the state picks up the tab.

Research carried out by the Citizens Advice Bureau in July 2010 quantified the knock-on costs of removing legal aid in certain areas. It was estimated that for every £1 of legal aid expenditure on housing advice, debt advice, employment advice and benefits advice the state saves between £2.34 and £8.80. Similar research carried out by the New Economics Foundation for the Law Centres Federation points to the same conclusion. In response the Government cited “reservations about the methodology employed”. Yet instead of pausing to conduct its own research, the Government has steamrollered ahead.

According to the Government’s Equality Impact Assessment, legal aid cuts have the potential to impact a greater proportion of women, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people, and ill or disabled people. For example, of the 135,000 people per year who will no longer get legal aid to help with welfare benefits issues, 58% will be ill or disabled, compared with the 19% of the population as a whole. This is justified, the Government says, as “a proportionate means of meeting our legitimate policy objectives” – namely, saving money. But if the proposals do not save money then the justification falls away. To avoid discrimination the onus is on the Government to check the figures first.

Of course, false economies are not the only reason why the legal aid cuts are objectionable. One might equally pick on the fact that the cuts will fall on the poorest and most vulnerable. Nonetheless the economics behind the reforms are a fundamental part of the debate. Before going further the Government must pause to properly assess the real costs of reform.

Connor Johnston is the co-chair of Young Legal Aid Lawyers. Heather Thomas is a member of YLAL and a trainee solicitor.


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