Mind is campaigning to protect legal aid from £350 million of cuts and drastic reforms proposed by the Coalition Government.
Access to free legal advice and representation is hugely important for people with experience of mental distress, who are one of the most disadvantaged and stigmatised groups in society. People rely on legal aid for help with debt, employment, housing and welfare benefits issues, as well as discrimination and mental health detention cases. The Government’s proposals threaten this essential legal safety net so Mind, as part of the Justice for all coalition, is calling on the Government to rethink their reforms.
What's the issue?
As part of the Government's drive to reduce public spending, they are proposing huge reforms to the legal aid system in a new Green Paper. The changes would significantly reduce the scope of legal aid (what issues people can access legal support for); the accessibility of support (initial advice would only be available by telephone); and the levels of financial eligibility (how much income or assets people are allowed to have before they have to contribute to the costs).
Although discrimination and mental health detention cases are protected, Mind is deeply concerned these proposals will have a disproportionate impact on people with mental health problems and threaten their right to equal access to justice.
In summary, our concerns relate to three areas:
- Scope: the blanket removal of many areas of civil law from legal aid funding - such as debt, education, employment, housing, family law, immigration, asylum, welfare benefits and some other areas - will prevent many people with mental health problems from accessing legal support for issues that are often central to managing their mental health. Other forms of advice for these issues are not available or appropriate for people with experience of mental distress.
- Access: the Government's proposed single telephone gateway will act as a barrier to accessing legal aid support that is available, as people with mental health problems often rely on face-to-face services where they can be accompanied by an advocate or other supporter. Communication difficulties or distress arising from their condition, coupled with the complexity of cases, mean this gateway alone is insufficient to give equal access to justice.
- Financial eligibility: as it is, legal aid is only available for people on low incomes and with very few assets, but under the reforms these people will have to pay more towards their legal costs. Given people with mental health problems are more likely to be living on a low income, with an estimated 75 per cent reliant on some kind of state benefit, the proposed changes will create a significant barrier to accessing much needed support.
What is Mind doing?
Together with other charities representing people who rely on legal aid, we have been putting our concerns strongly to Government. We have submitted formal responses to the Government's consultation on the Green Paper and engaged our supporters in lobbying MPs and Ministers directly. You can read our responses to the Green Paper:
- Joint response from Mind and Rethink
- Joint statement from the Disability Charities Consortium (Leonard Cheshire Disability, Mencap, Mind, RADAR, RNIB, RNID and Scope)
- Response from the Equality and Diversity Forum (equality and human rights organisations including Mind)
- A range of others' responses
With Justice for all, Mind will continue to push the Government on this issue. The Government's response to the consultation on the Green Paper is due out in Spring, which will confirm whether or not they have listened to our concerns and what steps we need to take next.
How can you help?
Thank you to all our campaigners and supporters who supported the campaign against the Government’s legal aid cuts in February! Over 4,000 Justice for all campaigners sent a Valentine’s e-card, urging Justice Minister Ken Clarke to re-think the drastic reforms and there were 5,000 formal responses to the consultation, which overwhelmed the Ministry of Justice.
This is a fantastic response, but we need to keep up the pressure on the Government and MPs, and let them know the importance of legal advice services. Find resources and more ideas about how you can take part in campaigning for Justice for All.