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Social Welfare Law Cases: Legal Aid

Volume 818: debated on Tuesday 1 February 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have this year, if any, to restore legal aid for social welfare law cases.

My Lords, following a consultation which concluded in January this year, we will lay legislation later this year proposing better access to social welfare advice for people facing possession proceedings. On 19 January, we laid legislation to pilot the provision of early legal advice for debt, housing and welfare benefit matters. The pilot will commence later this year. We will shortly publish our review of the means test for civil legal aid.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Many who work in this vital area of law very much welcome his departmental responsibility for civil legal aid and social welfare law for the reason that we and they know that he is a powerful supporter of access to justice for all. However, does he agree that the small but welcome steps the Government are taking in this field are peanuts when compared to the millions of pounds that has been cut from social welfare law funding year on year and the hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens who have been unable to get advice and assistance? Does he further agree that, for as long as many of our fellow citizens—often those with the very least—are deprived of access to justice by not getting the advice and representation they need, there remains a stain on our much-vaunted legal system?

My Lords, I am well aware of the noble Lord’s experience and work in this area, and I respectfully commend him for it. If I may say so, I think it is rather unfair of him to say that we are spending peanuts, when actually last year we spent £1.7 billion on legal aid services. I agree with him that access to justice is a fundamental part of any justice system, and our reforms are intended to ensure that people have not only legal aid but legal support at an earlier stage of the proceedings.

My Lords, The Impact of LASPO on Routes to Justice, by Dr James Organ and Dr Jennifer Sigafoos of the University of Liverpool and published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2018, found that, due to the lack of legal aid and the demise of specialised advice, the high demand for advice on disability benefits means that the almost complete removal of welfare benefits from the scope of legal aid has had a disproportionate impact on disabled people and those with long-term health conditions. The Minister mentioned a number of areas where pilots are being carried out, but will the Government take steps to restore the funding, at least for this important sector of the community?

My Lords, I note that when it is Justice Questions we always seem to have longer questions. We are starting a pilot in both Manchester and Middlesbrough to focus on the point that the noble Lord makes: to what extent can we divert people away and solve their problems at an earlier stage? I am aware of the report the noble Lord mentioned, and of others, but we are starting a pilot, so that we have evidence of what actually works on the ground.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister very much for his first Answer. I remind him that the Conservative Lord Rushcliffe’s 1945 report urged that:

“Legal aid should be available in all Courts and in such manner as will enable persons in need to have access to the professional help they require”.

At the last pre-Covid count, in more than half the local authorities in England and Wales, with some 22 million people, there was no provider in the field of housing legal aid. Would it not be a simple first step in the process of levelling up to take immediate steps to fund at least one such provider in each local authority in England and Wales?

My Lords, I am aware of the issue with legal aid for housing. I should make two points. First, we keep this under review and are making special efforts to ensure that we find providers in areas where there are currently no providers. Secondly, as my noble friend will also be aware, wherever you are in England and Wales you can always get legal advice through the CLA telephone service. Legal advice is always available.

My Lords, the Government trumpet their intention of levelling up the disadvantaged regions through investment. Will the Minister at the same time take steps to provide adequately and properly for the needs of the disadvantaged individuals at the bottom of the ladder by providing investment for their levelling up, so that they can put their cases without disadvantage? Does the Minister really consider that they are properly dealt with?

My Lords, I have already mentioned the pilot we are starting in Middlesbrough and Manchester to identify the best way of providing legal aid for, among others, those people. I also said in a previous answer that we are looking at a review of the means test for legal aid. Indeed, we have revoked that means test for various parts of civil legal aid to ensure that people can access courts when they are most vulnerable—for example, domestic abuse victims seeking a non-molestation order.

Do we need a pilot when we know that, when you are on social security, there are so many things around welfare that exclude you and make you feel that you are actually not a part of democracy and society? Around justice, you do not need some test; you need to roll it out and get it working.

My Lords, with respect, you need a test to ensure that what you are doing is the most useful thing you can do. For example, we are looking at putting legal advice centres in hospitals, because we know that people who have legal problems often have other social welfare problems as well. It is often the case that you cannot resolve all your problems through the law; you need a holistic approach. I think we need some hard evidence, and the pilot will be very useful in this area.

My Lords, is it not the case that the Government’s review and the pilot schemes demonstrate that the Government got it very badly wrong when they cut millions of pounds from this area? Would it not be better to restore those cuts and then do a proper review and make sure that, this time, it covers people and gives them some rights?

My Lords, I made a commitment to myself today not to mention the words “Grayling” or “Gray”. What I would say is that, in this area, there is no going back to the pre-LASPO position. What we want to do in other areas of law where LASPO gave people legal aid is to divert them from the courts altogether. For example, in private family cases we have a mediation voucher scheme. We do not want people in court arguing about private family cases; we want them to resolve their problems outside court through mediation.

My Lords, it is to be welcomed that there is pilot scheme going on. I am particularly pleased to hear about the mediation scheme, which is crucial to trying to find ways to deal with things one-to-one. Can the Minister say a little more though about what is going on? What I hear from people working in the legal system is that it is absolutely blocked up by people who cannot get advice, or indeed aid, coming with hopeless cases. If only they could be given guidance earlier on, we might be able to solve some of the huge backlog, which is in itself an injustice.

The right reverend Prelate is right: we want to ensure that people do not go to court when they do not need to. During the pandemic we invested £5.4 million in not-for-profit legal support services, to make sure that people can have access to early legal advice so that only those who need the assistance of a judge go to court.

My Lords, it is 10 years since the LASPO Act came into force, which so dramatically reduced legal aid funding. The Government’s review of LASPO, published in February 2019, pointed out that the housing sector was particularly affected by these cuts, and that when housing legal advice was in scope, people were still failing to get access to the relevant legal advice. What will the pilot that the Minister has talked about do to help people get the advice which they are entitled to in any event?

My Lords, the pilot that I was referring to is a general pilot in relation to social and welfare entitlements. Regarding housing possession cases, as the noble Lord knows, there is a housing possession court duty scheme. We are running a specific focus on that, because there are areas where people are not getting the advice that they need. That was paused during the pandemic because we put a complete halt on repossessions, but we are now looking at the best way to make sure that we get focused housing advice to people who need it, when they need it.

My Lords, what was the Government’s original motivation back in 2012? Presumably, it was to save money, which this probably has not done overall. What the Government have done is to throw thousands of the poorest people in the UK into a situation where they cannot find justice.

I am afraid that I cannot assist the House with what the Government’s motivation was in 2012. My motivation is very simple: the rule of law and access to justice. It is as simple as that.