Changes to the welfare benefits system could create an additional £14m burden on the legal aid budget, the government has warned, as it seeks to limit automatic eligibility for some claimants. 

Under the current legal aid system, receipt of certain benefits is used as an administrative shortcut for ‘passporting’ applicants through the means tests to receive non-contributory legal aid.

However, the Ministry of Justice says universal credit, introduced in 2013 to replace several existing means-tested benefits, has a wider scope than the previous ‘passporting’ benefits. This means that some people receiving current non-passported benefits could become automatically eligible to free legal aid.

Continuing with current arrangements could result in an additional annual £14m cost to the legal aid fund, the ministry claims in a consultation paper. It proposes to limit automatic eligibility to universal credit recipients who have zero income from employment.  

Justice minister Sir Oliver Heald, in a foreword to the paper, insisted the latest proposals are not a ‘cost-cutting exercise’.

He said: ‘Rather our intention is to limit any additional financial burden being placed on the legal aid budget whilst ensuring that means testing arrangements continue to make sure that limited funds are targeted fairly at those clients most in need and that clients who can, and should, contribute to the costs of their legal advice and representation, do so.’

The consultation closes on 11 May.

Meanwhile, latest quarterly tribunal statistics show a steep rise in the number of social security and child support appeals. Employment support allowance (ESA) and personal independence payment (PIP) accounted for 85% of the 60,600 appeals received between October and December last year.

Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, head of policy and profile at the Law Centres Network, identified problems with PIP and employment support allowance ESA assessments, which he says get many benefits decisions wrong for sick and disabled people.

Ben-Cnaan said: ‘Sometimes they get them manifestly wrong. Recently they tried to stop ESA for a law centre client who is a double amputee, claiming that he could climb stairs with his hands instead.

'Thankfully his law centre helped him appeal and the Department for Work and Pensions apologised for what it called a “clerical error”. But these errors are all too common.’

A second issue is the DWP’s mandatory reconsideration.

Ben-Cnaan said: ’This makes it all the more important to ensure that people can challenge decisions at tribunal, and to help them to do so with legal advice and representation. Given success rates, restoring legal aid for this work would also be exceptionally good value for money.’