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Justice: Legal Advice

Volume 744: debated on Monday 11 March 2013

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the consequences for access to justice for those who will not be able to receive free legal advice on social welfare law matters from 1 April.

My Lords, these matters were assessed as part of the impact assessments, which were published alongside the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply as far as it goes but I do not think it is very full on detail. It is now only 21 days until civil legal aid effectively disappears, affecting access to justice for perhaps hundreds of thousands of people every year. What do Her Majesty’s Government think will happen to the disabled person, for example, who wants to appeal his or her Atos decision, or the person who needs housing advice but cannot get it because the local Shelter housing advice centre has been forced to close, as today’s newspapers report? What are the Government’s contingency plans when unadvised and unrepresented clients flood courts and tribunals? No one can say the Government have not been warned, all the way from the very top of the legal system to small charities that are at breaking point. What will the Government do when it all goes wrong?

My Lords, we are working on some of these issues. We are working with the judiciary to improve guidelines for people representing themselves in court. We are developing a new online information service to help people find out if they are eligible for legal aid or signpost them to other services. We are giving £65 million of funding to help not-for-profit social welfare advice providers to adapt and transition over the next two years. We are also encouraging innovations in the legal services market, such as the provision of lower-cost advice services to help people in resolving their problems.

My Lords, how can anybody make a useful assessment in such a short time as there is from now to the changes? Should we not recognise that great trouble has been taken over these proposed changes? In a very tight financial situation, has not the time come to see what happens and then, if necessary, make changes one way or the other?

I thank my noble friend for that question. It is true that the noble Lord, Lord Bach, has made something of a cottage industry of—

He continually talks about what is going to happen. As my noble friend has just said, let us see what happens. As I indicated, we are making a number of changes. Of course I understand that there are difficulties for organisations such as Shelter and the CAB. We have tried to give assistance in those adjustments. It is extremely difficult to give precise responses to predictions of catastrophes that may or may not happen. I can say to my noble friend that we will keep these matters under review. As noble Lords on those Benches will remember, on their instructions we inserted into LASPO a clause that allows review of the impact of the changes that we have made.

My Lords, I will not ask the Minister about legal aid, but is he aware of the increased importance of law centres and citizens advice bureaux advising unrepresented litigants, of which there will be an enormously increased number come April? What are the Government going to do to help them advise unrepresented litigants?

Yes, my Lords, I am aware of that, but one of the points I have made continually through this is that the CAB and the law centres will have to adjust to a situation where the amount they have at their disposal is a lot less, just as my department and local authorities have had to do. That is a fact of life. As I have said on a number of occasions, we are a lot poorer than we thought we were four years ago. Citizens Advice has been extremely successful in lobbying and, as I have indicated, we have made more funds available. For example, my right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor has announced today that we will be giving further aid to the CAB at the Royal Courts of Justice to help with the particular work it is doing in this area.

My Lords, in three weeks’ time the bedroom tax will kick in—and I use the phrase “kick in” advisedly. Some 660,000 families, two-thirds of them including someone with a disability, will lose between £14 and £25 a week from their benefit. Given that, despite the noble Lord’s answers, CABs are losing—locally, certainly—some 40% of their funding because the Lord Chancellor’s money has dried up, where does he expect those 660,000 families to go for advice?

The Opposition continue to preach gloom and doom about this. They will be entitled to bring to our notice how these impacts take place, but we have put a number of measures in place to try to deal with this new situation. We have put on a new online information service, we have given Citizens Advice and other advice centres transitional money and will continue to do so, and we are looking for innovations in legal services from other parts of the legal profession. We will see what happens.