Cuts to legal aid are locking people out of the justice system and with potential legal aid providers increasingly no longer bidding for such work the entire system is on the point of collapse Unite, the UK’s largest union has warned.
Even where legal aid is still in theory available, rates of pay are so low that many potential providers are voting with their feet and are no longer bidding to provide these services, or taking on very few cases. There has been a 20 per cent fall in legal advice providers since 2012.
The most recent round of government legal aid contracts has had to be re-run three times in order to generate sufficient coverage.
In many other cases legal advice is only available via a poorly advertised telephone gateway, where people only receive remote advice and never see anyone face to face. Sections of the law where it is exceedingly difficult to access through legal aid include: family law, debt, welfare benefits, housing, employment, discrimination and immigration law.
The bar on legal aid on immigration law made it virtually impossible for victims of the Windrush scandal to challenge government decisions to deny them access to public services and to fight attempts to remove them from the UK.
When the government introduced the cuts it predicted that the voluntary sector would step in and provide the advice and assistance that had been initially provided via legal aid, this has not occurred. There has been a drop of more than 60 per cent in not for profit advice providers in the last 13 years, and cuts to local authorities funding are likely to make this even worse in future.
Unite national officer Siobhan Endean said: “Legal aid rates and the areas that it covers have been slashed to such an extent that the service is barely able to function and in many areas it is on the point of collapse.
“Whole swathes of the law have now been entirely removed from legal aid and this has resulted in tragic cases for example with the Windrush victims unable to access legal aid.
“The government’s idea that the charity and voluntary sector would fill the gap created by legal aid cuts has proved nothing more than an ill thought out pipe dream.
It is essential that when the government reviews the legal aid situation later this year, these cuts are reversed and access to justice is restored.
“One crumb of comfort for Unite members is that despite these cuts they remain eligible for free legal advice through their union membership in many of these affected areas.”