Government cuts support to advice sector
Another day, another cut for civil legal advice services. Yesterday, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) announced that it is ending grants to three charities, the Advice Services Alliance (ASA), the Law Centres Federation (LCF) and the Royal Courts of Justice Citizens Advice Bureau (RCJ CAB). A total of £655,317 in long-standing grants, which support civil legal advice services, will go, adding to the £350m the government is already cutting from legal aid.
At face value, the government’s assertion that due to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012 it must refocus its resources on providing legal aid to clients who remain eligible for the service might seem fair. However, the purpose of these grants went wider than just supporting the civil legal aid scheme and LAG views their loss as another illustration of this government’s abandonment of legal advice services for ordinary members of the public.
The RCJ CAB was established in 1978 with the encouragement of the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Elwyn-Jones. The Lord Chancellor’s Department (the MoJ’s predecessor) made a grant in 1997 to expand the work of the bureau. It employs solicitors and other caseworkers to assist litigants in person before the courts. One of the advantages of professional legal advice is that potential court users can be advised at an early stage if they have or have not got a case. A consequence of the LASPO Act is that there will be an increase in the number of people who will not have received advice at any point in their case, making it more likely for them to pitch up at a court hearing. Cutting the bureau at this time makes no sense, especially as without it more court time will be inevitably spent on cases involving unrepresented litigants.
Lord Elwyn-Jones was also behind the grant made to the LCF (recently renamed as the Law Centres Network) in 1978. He and successive Lord Chancellors have seen the value of supporting LCF in promoting the Law Centre model of providing legal services. It should be remembered that Law Centre funding from the civil legal aid scheme only grew to the present levels after the expansion of legal aid to not for profit (NFP) organisations introduced under the last government. For most of their history, Law Centres have been mainly paid for by charitable grants and public funding other than legal aid. Given that the government has decided to withdraw legal aid from the type of civil legal work which Law Centres generally specialise in, it would seem self-evident that the MoJ should be continuing to support them as an alternative to the legal aid scheme – that is assuming it has any real commitment to access to justice for the general public.
The grant to ASA was more intrinsically linked to the provision of legal aid services by the NFP advice sector, but as ASA rightly pointed out when the cut was proposed last September, the need to support NFP organisations as they make the transition from legal aid funding (after most of the legal aid services provided by the sector are cut in April) will continue. Also, like LCF, ASA represents and supports the NFP advice sector and should merit help from the government, especially considering the difficulties which the advice services it represents are facing from a range of cuts. Rather than just a cut to save cash, LAG fears there could be a more insidious motive behind the MoJ’s decision to pull the rug out from under ASA and LCF. The cuts to these charities will weaken the voice of the sector in speaking up for frontline advice centres and, ultimately, the public, who are bearing the brunt of the government’s cuts to access to justice.
Steve Hynes is the author of LAG’s book, Austerity Justice.
For details of the MoJ statement, visit: www.justice.gov.uk/legal-aid/areas-of-work/civil.
Image: South Manchester Law Centre