Earlier this month, despite opposition from the Labour Party, charities and campaigning groups from the Law Society to the Women’s Institute, government plans to slash social welfare legal aid passed through the House of Commons. Next week, the proposals will be debated in the House of Lords. This represents the last chance to save this key pillar of our welfare state which, for over 60 years, has sought to enable those without financial means to access the legal rights every citizen of this country should enjoy.
Cuts proposed to the legal aid budget will fall disproportionately on the kind of early stage legal advice and support on which the poorest and most vulnerable in our society depend for access to justice. This legal advice, while a financial outlay for the taxpayer, ultimately results in savings further down the line.
Preventing sometimes small legal problems escalating into much greater issues of the kind that necessitate a greater call on the resources of central and local government spares the public purse in the long run. In fact, according to Citizens Advice research, every £1 spent on legal aid on housing issues saves the state £2.34, on debt the saving is £2.98, on employment advice the state saves £7.13, and on benefits the saving reaches £8.80. The cuts are nothing but short-sighted and short-termist.
I recognise savings need to be made to the legal aid budget of £2.2bn. When Labour was in government, we stemmed the inexorable rise in the legal aid budget but simultaneously strived to protect social welfare law because of its importance to the most vulnerable in society. We have offered alternative savings, as have other groups, but these have been rejected without proper consideration or explanation.
Decimating social welfare legal aid is an assault on the notion of equality for all before the law. Moreover, government claims of remaining committed to protecting society’s most vulnerable have been shown to be completely hollow - the Ministry of Justice’s own impact assessment demonstrated that women, those of an ethnic minority and people with disabilities will be hit the hardest, to devastating effect.
Legal aid provides women in abusive relationships with the legal means to protect themselves from violent and psychological abuse; it has enabled women to seek legal advice and support on housing, debt and child maintenance; and it has allowed some of the most vulnerable women facing forced marriages access to vital, specialist legal help.
The government plans to remove private family legal aid unless there is an injunction brought or active criminal proceedings in respect of domestic violence - setting the threshold to receiving legal aid extremely high. This simply does not provide for situations, as happens far too frequently, where a woman has been living in fear for many years but has not taken formal action until gathering the courage to leave their partner. Labour’s amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill to prevent trapping women in abusive relationships was rejected by the government.
Social welfare legal aid has been a lifeline for women, in some cases quite literally. Women make over 60% of all applications for legal support in civil and families matters. But the government is severing this lifeline for some of those most in need of help.
However, my concerns run deeper than the immediate impact these cuts will have on some of the most vulnerable and those from the most deprived communities who disproportionately require legal aid support. The reforms risk reversing the progress made in recent years to diversify the judiciary. High street firms, law centres and Citizens Advice services that employ young solicitors from all backgrounds (who are tomorrow’s judges) will struggle to survive with 650,000 fewer people accessing legal aid. The diversity and vibrancy of our judiciary will suffer as a result.
None of those providing much-needed legal advice via legal aid are milking the gravy train and making huge sums of money. But their work is life-changing and sometimes life-saving. We have a week before legal aid reforms are debated in the House of Lords to continue the campaign against these unfair and unjust cuts. Labour peers are ready for the fight and will be the last stand against the decimation of legal aid.
The Rt. Hon Sadiq Khan MP is shadow lord chancellor and shadow secretary of state for justice and constitutional affairs