Removing funding for a service that helps litigants in person on the day wide-ranging legal aid cuts take effect will create ‘absolute disarray’ in the courts, a former head of the family division has warned.
The Citizens Advice Bureau at the Royal Courts of Justice assists litigants in person at the High Court, Court of Appeal and Principle Registry. The money it gets to fund the service will end on 1 April, following the Legal Services Commission’s decision to axe Community Legal Service grants.
The Advice Services Alliance and Law Centres Network will also lose funding, together saving the government £655,317.
On the same day as the grants end, thousands of people will be removed from legal aid eligibility as the cuts in the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act come into effect. This is expected to vastly increase the number of litigants in person.
Lady Butler-Sloss (pictured) told the House of Lords yesterday that the RJC CAB did work of ‘significance and importance’.
‘Having been a judge in the court for many years, I had personal experience of the advantages of the bureau looking after unrepresented families in my court,’ she said. She asked if Lord McNally, the legal aid minister, understood that taking away its core funding at this time ‘is going to leave the public and the courts in absolute disarray’.
Labour’s former legal aid minister Lord Bach asked McNally why a decision had been taken that would put at risk ‘three highly respected and proven organisations’ that have a ‘superb record’ of helping disadvantaged people get access to justice.
He questioned the government’s motives saying: ‘Is it just coincidence that these changes to legal aid are coming at precisely the same time as radical reform of the welfare system is about to begin?
‘Or is it, as seems much more likely to some of us, deliberate government policy to link these two things so that if mistakes are made as a result of welfare reform – as they will be – there will cease to be any effective legal remedy for many people.’
Defending the cut, McNally said the original three-year contracts to the groups had been extended twice, but that the grants were not used to provide direct advice to people who qualify for legal aid and that could no longer be afforded.
With a limited budget, he said ‘hard decisions’ had to be made and funding limited to those giving ‘sharp-end’ legal aid advice. ‘Quite simply, the days when large amounts of government funds were available for these bodies are over and we all have to face that fact,’ he said.