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Campaigning for ‘justice for all’

Wednesday, 12 January 2011 Amy Whitelock, Senior Policy and Campaigns Officer

Amy discusses the impact Legal Aid cuts will have on justice and people experiencing mental health problems.

Today, charity campaigners, lawyers, advisers, and members of the public will descend on parliament in a mass lobby of MPs. They will be united in outrage at the coalition Government’s proposals to radically reform the Legal Aid system.

By ‘reform’, I mean cut – cut the budget and cut off access. The plans to reduce the budget by £350 million will lead over half a million people to lose out on advice, according to the Government’s own figures.

That will certainly include a considerable proportion of people with experience of mental distress.

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.

To achieve the so-called ‘savings’ of £350 million, the Government’s proposals severely restrict both what advice legal aid will fund and who can get it, although discrimination and mental health detention cases are protected.

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. People are likely to fall through the gap between being ineligible for full legal aid, but unable to afford the high costs of advice from a private solicitor.

On top of this, the green paper proposes cutting legal aid funding for advice on debt, education, employment, housing, family, immigration, welfare benefits and some other areas. This is highly worrying, given people with mental health problems are three times more likely to be in debt and make up around 45 per cent of people on incapacity benefits.

Ending legal aid for all welfare benefits cases, including appeals to decisions for sickness benefits, at the same time as radically reforming the benefits system seems to me a particularly rash decision, given 40 per cent of appealed ‘fit for work’ decisions for Employment Support Allowance are successfully overturned at present, even before the welfare reforms come in.

It’s likely many of these appeals rely on some legal aid funding, so without this, people who are unfit for work will be left unable to challenge an erroneous benefits assessment and may be forced back to work prematurely.

To my mind, there’s no doubt these reforms would severely damage access to justice. As Mind’s Another assault research has found, people with experience of mental distress already face numerous barriers in accessing the justice system. Cuts to legal aid will only make matters worse.

That’s why Mind has joined Justice for All, a coalition of charities, legal and advice agencies, politicians, trade unions, community groups and members of the public, all campaigning to protect legal aid.

We need to stand together to call on the Government to rethink their proposals.

You can help by writing to your MP, asking them to sign the EDM 1194 (early day motion) and put pressure on Government Ministers to ensure any reform of legal aid does not damage access to justice still further, particularly for those most vulnerable in our society.

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