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The human cost of legal aid cuts
Thursday 12 April 2012 by Catherine Baksi
Next Tuesday the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders bill will be back in the Commons for MPs to consider amendments made by peers. It is likely that many of the amendments will be reversed and the bill, which removes huge areas of law from the scope of legal aid, will receive royal assent before the end of May.
If that happens, many law centres, including the 100-year-old Mary Ward Legal Centre (MWLC) say that they may be unable to survive. The centre, based in London, gives free legal advice to people on a low income living or working in the capital. It specialises in casework and representation in debt, employment and discrimination, housing and welfare benefits. It has published a report demonstrating the impact its work has had on the lives of some of the 3,000 people it has helped over the last year.
Once the legal aid cuts are implemented, here are some of the people who, the centre said, will lose out:
Brian’s story: Brian’s landlord got a court order awarding him possession of the flat that he had lived in for 30 years. Brian represented himself at court and was concerned he was going to be evicted. He saw a specialist housing solicitor at MWLC who talked to him about the case and pointed out some of the mistakes he’d made when representing himself. The solicitor submitted an appeal and arranged for Brian to get a barrister.
Brian says: ‘After MWLC contacted the landlord and he heard that we were appealing, and that I had engaged a barrister, he threw the towel in.
‘I’m still in my home and not on the street which is where I thought I would be when I lost the hearing. If the MWLC hadn’t helped me sort things out I could have been on the streets with a suitcase.’
Pablo’s story: has cancer and HIV. He was training as a dietician and nutritionist until funding cuts meant his course was cancelled. He had taken out bank loans to pay for his training and owed £14,000. He had tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with his bank. He was becoming unwell as he couldn’t afford to eat properly, his debts were getting him down and he says he thought about ‘bringing it all to an end’.
He was referred to the MWLC who helped him apply for a debt relief order and he is now debt free and has returned to work as a volunteer providing nutrition services for people with HIV.
He says: ‘I am now able to deal with my life again after getting out of debt. Thanks to Mary Ward Legal Centre I’ve had a real boost. I’ve been fighting cancer and HIV for years and can now feed myself properly again.’
Claudia’s story: 20-year-old Claudia had been living on the streets and with friends for 10 days after leaving home because of domestic violence. She approached the local authority next door to where she lived, but they told her she had to go to authority in the area where she had most recently lived. When she went to her own local authority, they also refused to help her and referred her back to the first authority. But when she went back there she was told that they would not provide her with accommodation.
She attended a drop in session at MWLC and a solicitor wrote to the second local authority telling them they would have to house her or they would make a judicial review challenge to the High Court.
Claudia was placed in interim accommodation by the local authority.
She says: ‘The solicitor made me understand what was going on, They lightened my spirits and made me feel that I could do more than I thought was possible.’
The services provided by the MWLC have helped many vulnerable people get their lives back on track - many say that the centre saved their lives. The help they received has led to clients being housed, getting training and jobs, improving their health, and given many the ability to help themselves and retain their self-respect.
Aside from the impact on the individuals, the advice and help given by the centre has undoubtedly saved huge expenses for the state - from the costs of NHS care, homelessness and unemployment.
The government claims its cuts will save £350m, but what will be the cost if centres like the Mary Ward close?
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