For my twelfth item in this series of stories of injustice, I have chosen three vivid scenarios sent to us by the Harrow Law Centre (whose Patron I am proud to be.)
They are particularly relevant on the day after the new Leader of the Conservative Party has made it clear that she wants to heal the wounds of a divided society.
The annual accounts of the Legal Aid Agency for 2015-16, which have just been published, appear to show at pages 66-67 that audited net expenditure on all forms of civil and crminal legal help and legal representation has been cut by £630 million, from £2.11 billion in 2010-11 (the first year of the Coalition Government) to £1.48 billion in 2015-16.
[I omit the expenditure from central funds on the costs of acquitted defendants and on interpreters, which were not in the legal aid budget in 2010-11, but the inclusion of these items would only reduce the size of the cuts to £582 million.]
This is a much greater cut than was ever envisaged when the LASPO proposals were first proposed in November 2010 and legal aid cuts of £350 million were suggested. The damage these excessive cuts have caused to so many people’s health and happiness is incalulable.
Lord Low’s Commission believed that additional expenditure of £100 million on social welfare law would make a great difference. I have summarised his oral evidence to the Bach Commission elsewhere on this site. He told us:
We estimated that a further £100 million a year would be needed to provide a base level of provision of sufficient advice and legal support on social welfare law.
The expression “social welfare law” encompasses housing, welfare benefits, debt, education, asylum & immigration, and community care.
Three vignettes of life in Harrow today
The Harrow Law Centre says:
We now regularly see vulnerable people who have been left without any food or heating. This is often because they have had a benefit sanction, or because their mental illness has meant they could not cope with the very harsh systems introduced for employment support allowance.
We also see vulnerable people who have been evicted unlawfully or have lost their home because they could not sort out their benefits. In the last few weeks we have had four families sleeping in cars due to homelessness, and several sleeping in the bus station or the park. We have had several cases of people saying they have had enough and are going to kill themselves.
We see children with special needs pushed out of the schools considered to be the best in the borough and we see some left without education at all for many months.
The underlying causes of the human misery described by the Harrow Law Centre were explained by AdviceUK, which is the largest support network for free, independent advice centres in this country. It told us:
The well-publicised problems with the introduction of Personal Independence Payments, Employment and Support Allowance (particularly in the use of Work Capability Assessments) have resulted in many people being without income to meet essential living needs. The length of time required to navigate bureaucratic legal procedures results in gaps in income, which in turn often leads to problem debt involving rent arrears, council tax arrears, pressure to use inappropriate or high-cost credit and a significant increase in the use of emergency support offered by local charities such as foodbanks. The introduction of mandatory reconsideration highlights the pernicious effects of the bureaucracy.
For many clients, the vulnerability and disadvantage associated with poor housing, problem debt and no income is compounded by poor physical and mental health, all of which make it much more difficult to understand and navigate legal procedures. Similarly, the inappropriate use of benefit sanctions has resulted in unnecessary legal action.
It is highly inefficient to deal with hundreds of individual cases where mistakes are predictably arising because of systems that are not fit for purpose, but there is little interest in changing such systems in ways that would both improve the lives of the people that have to navigate them and save money to the public purse.
This was echoed in the evidence of the Law Centres Network, the spokesman for 44 not- for-profit legal practices across the UK:
The biggest impact of LASPO has been the devastation of local legal and advice ecologies through the removal of funding for their essential services in social welfare law. Particularly hard hit was the early and preventative work used to nip problems in the bud. Since LASPO civil legal aid now backloads legal assistance to later stages when problems have already escalated, causing avoidable suffering for clients and greater expense to the state. As evidence, the only indicator that the Ministry of Justice reports on for civil legal aid in its annual report – average cost per case – has gone up.
And the Islington Law Centre told us that one of their three gravest concerns related to the escalation of problems due to the scale of need and the difficulty in securing help. They themselves have a “book ahead” time of over two months for many of their services, and for people with precarious incomes and few tenancy or employment rights, their situation can deteriorate badly during this time, leading to a need for more extensive work and with an impact on physical and mental health.
This link between injustice and damage to physical and mental health recurred often in the evidence we received.
In short, people have rights. They do not know they have those rights. They do not know where to turn for advice about them even if they know they have them. And the number of outlets for such advice has been decimated since LASPO.
How can this be justice?
See the Ministry of Justice’s Annual Report and Accounts for 2014-15, available at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/434016/mojannual–report–and–accounts–2014–15.pdf, p. 5.