Justice could be denied to 500,000

Fears South West residents will suffer if Government slashes Legal Aid budget. Only the poorest of the poor could qualify for help.

Equality South West has condemned Government plans to slash the legal aid budget by �350 million by 2014-15 and severely restrict free legal advice services.

The body says it could deny justice to around 500,000 people a year.

Katie Pratt, deputy chief executive of Taunton-based Equality South West (ESW) – the region’s leading equality and human rights body – said legal experts estimated a quarter of people who currently get help from the legal aid system will no longer be able to.

The Government’s plans are the most drastic cuts to legal aid in its 60-year history and seek to reduce the number of civil law cases by around 500,000.

As well as cutting the Legal Aid Fund, ministers are also planning to make it harder for people to access civil legal aid by changing the way in which claimants are assessed and by removing whole areas of the law from public funding.

Ms Pratt said: “If these proposals are implemented, only the very poorest of the poor will be able to obtain civil legal aid.

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“Hundreds of thousands of people will be unable to get the help they need at a time of crisis, when they are least able to defend themselves.

“But even for the very few who do qualify, legal aid will no longer be available for a wide range of disputes, including housing, divorce, school exclusion appeals, welfare benefits, employment, non violent domestic disputes, clinical negligence and debt advice.

“These proposals will mean that if you are unfairly sacked, or if you’ve suffered ill treatment for medical negligence, or have been evicted from your home, or your child is excluded from a school, or a host of other cases, you will be on your own unless you can afford to pay for a lawyer.”

Ms Pratt said the proposals would destroy the principle that fair access to the law for everyone, not just the rich, was the foundation of a democratic society.

“Equality before the law has to mean equal access to the law but these proposals will mean that justice will only be available to those who can afford it,” she said.

“Legal aid was started in 1949 to ensure all citizens could get equality of access to justice, a fair trial and enforce their basic rights – all of which are essential to any democratic society. These proposals will deny justice to hundreds of thousands of people.”

Ms Pratt said law centres – not-for-profit legal services offering free legal advice to vulnerable people – were already under great strain. “Citizens Advice Bureaux and local law centres rely on local authorities for part of their funding – and as we all know, they are suffering their own financial pressures too,” she said.

Until late last year there were four law centres in the South West – Avon & Bristol, Devon, Gloucester and Wiltshire. But Devon Law Centre closed in October, having helped 5,000 people since it opened in 2001.

Ms Pratt urged people to contact their MP to express their concern and also to respond to the Government’s consultation, which ends on February 14. Visit: www.justice.gov.uk/consultations/legal-aid-reform-151110.htm.

She also urged people to support the Justice For All campaign against the proposals at: www.justice-for-all.org.uk