Legal Aid For Benefit / Social Care Disputes / Challenging The System ? Think Again , The Monies Aren't There Anymore

All about money
No surprise on the cuts in legal aid ... old news ... but ... with a deadly sting for many caught up in benefit disputes : ... s-disputes

Disabled people lose legal aid in 99% of benefits disputes.

Official figures show that cuts have caused a massive drop in claimants granted help for welfare battles.

The extent to which savage government cuts have deprived disabled people of legal aid in disputes over their benefit payments is revealed today by new official figures that show a 99% decline since 2011.

The total number of disabled people granted legal aid in welfare cases has plummeted from 29,801 in 2011-12 to just 308 in 2016-17, cutting some of the most vulnerable people in society adrift without expert advice in often highly complex and distressing cases.

MPs and charities representing disabled people reacted furiously to the figures, released in a parliamentary answer, saying they bore out their worst fears at the time ministers announced the cuts several years ago.

They called on the government to speed up an ongoing review of the legal aid system and to end a Whitehall culture that, they say, too often views disabled people as easy targets for savings.

Drastic cuts to the £2bn legal aid budget were imposed in 2013 as part of the Tory austerity drive championed by former chancellor George Osborne. The 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act removed more than £350m from the legal aid budget and ended the right to legal representation in many benefits cases, as well as others concerning divorce, child custody, clinical negligence, employment, immigration and housing.

The Labour MP Gloria de Piero, who raised the issue with ministers, said the Conservatives insisted when their austerity programme was announced that the cuts would not hit the most needy. “The staggering fall in the numbers of disabled people challenging, if they believe their benefits have been wrongly removed, shows just how many vulnerable people are now denied access to justice because of the government’s cruel legal aid cuts,” she said.

Richard Lane, head of communications at disability charity Scope, called the figures “shocking”. He said they were proof that disabled people were now in “a weaker position to challenge inaccuracy and poor decision-making within government welfare systems”.

Gill Coddington, a former civil servant and benefits expert who works at Scope’s helpline, offering guidance on how people can manage claims, said that of about 23,000 calls to the helpline every year, two-thirds related to issues to do with benefits. She said the cuts to legal aid meant that now only a tiny number – those whose cases reached the very highest tribunals – were granted help.

“The work we do can be very distressing,” she said. “Combined with the administrative changes, and changes to the assessment culture, they have helped contribute to a demonisation of disabled people. Many who call our helpline feel they have no one standing up for them any more. Until 2013, legal aid for welfare benefits offered disabled people proper access to justice that they no longer have.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson denied the government was depriving the most needy of help. “Maintaining access to justice remains at the heart of our legal aid system, and last year we spent over £1.6bn to ensure help is available for those who need it most,” the spokesperson said. “We are conducting an evidence-based review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, to assess the changes made against their objectives. We will publish our findings this year.”

Marsha de Cordova, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, who herself suffers from nystagmus – a condition that causes the involuntary movement of the eye – and is registered as blind, said the entire legal aid system had been “hollowed out”, with terrible results. “Thousands of disabled people are being denied access to justice. When over two-thirds of social security appeals are lost by the Department for Work and Pensions, it is crucial the government adequately funds legal aid to ensure disabled people can have access to justice.”

“A Labour government would introduce a social security system that is fair and fit for purpose, and ensure disabled people are supported and have full access to the judicial system.”

Kamran Mallick, chief executive officer of the charity Disability Rights UK, said: “The government was warned changes to access to legal aid would fall heavily on disabled people who need legal advice, and these figures show those concerns were real.

“Despite that, we’ve seen a massive rise in the number of people appealing disability benefit claims, and a huge increase in the number of successful appeals after people have been wrongly turned down. But our benefits system is complex to navigate, and more so since the raft of changes that have come in since 2012.”

He added: “Some people do need extra legal help and support, and if they don’t get it they may end up without benefits they’re entitled to.

“Access to justice is a fundamental human right as well as a sign of a civilised society. We’d urge the government to reverse the changes that are hitting disabled people so heavily.”

In essence , the ordinary person has always had access to the legal system when he / she has been wronged.


If access is now denied through the ordinary person not having the means to launch legal action ... as a direct result of Government policy ... then , is that not a fundamental flaw in our constitution ???

Even more galling ... the claimant v. DWP scoreboard shows that the claimants are well on top ... as recorded a little while ago in another thread.

As if the rules of the game are being altered so that the House wins on every spin of the wheel.
More the repercussions of legal aid being reduced :

Access to justice under threat in UK, says supreme court judge.

Lord Wilson attacks dismantling of UK’s ‘precious system of legal aid’ in forthright Chicago speech.

“In pursuit of its economic policy the UK government has recently felt the need to dismantle much of our precious system of legal aid, introduced in 1949 along with the other two pillars of our welfare state, namely social security and the National Health Service,” Wilson explained.

The disadvantaged who needed to be acquainted with their human rights and helped to enforce them were unlikely to be able to do so without free legal advice and representation, he said.

“Even where it is required to continue to provide free legal aid, for example to defendants to criminal charges and to parents threatened with the removal of their children, the UK is dismantling it indirectly by setting rates of remuneration for the lawyers at levels so uncommercial that, reluctantly, most of them feel unable to do that work. Access to justice is under threat in the UK.”

Wilson said the UK’s lower courts were full of litigants who had to represent themselves, often “very ineptly”. Able advocates still regularly appeared, “but, particularly when they are asserting human rights against a public authority, they nobly appear pro bono, or for a small fee under the attenuated legal aid scheme; and it constantly offends me that it should be necessary for them to do so.”
.... and there's more : ... l-aid-cuts

Justice 'only for the wealthy': Law Society condemns legal aid cuts.

Restricting public access to funding obstructs the right to a fair trial, report says.

It is increasingly difficult for defendants and claimants to find solicitors prepared to represent them due to government legal aid cuts, the Law Society has warned.

In a fiercely worded attack on funding restrictions, Christina Blacklaws, the society’s president, said British justice now existed “only for the wealthy, or the small number on very low incomes lucky enough to find a solicitor willing and able to fight a mountain of red tape to secure legal aid.”

Public access to justice and the right to a fair trial has never been so restricted, according to the organisation that represents solicitors across England and Wales.
Not only for appeals against benefit related decisions :

Legal Aid Agency taken to court for refusing to help rough sleepers.

Liberty says aid agency is declining to help the homeless challenge illegitimate PSPOs.

A human rights organisation is taking the national provider of legal aid to court because it is refusing to help rough sleepers challenge councils over the use of potentially unlawful powers to move them on.

Liberty has launched the legal challenge against the Legal Aid Agency because they will not offer assistance to rough sleepers and other local residents who cannot afford to pay lawyers if they want to challenge local authorities’ use of public space protection orders (PSPOs).

A PSPO allows councils to ban activities they deem to have a detrimental effect on the lives of others. But many have been used to ban rough sleeping – wrongly equating poverty with antisocial behaviour in defiance of Home Office guidance, Liberty said.

“Many local authorities are criminalising those in need, but the Legal Aid Agency’s position robs all but the wealthy of their ability to challenge council abuse of power. It is essential this case goes ahead so that anyone can challenge illegitimate public space protection orders,” said Rosie Brighouse, a lawyer for Liberty.

The LAA insists that ordinarily PSPO challenges do not fall under the scope of the scheme.

Common theme ?

Those at the bottom of society with no recourse to the Law.

That , in itself , is also a breach of our Constitutional Rights.

Medieval times ... here we come ... rapidly ?
Labour vows to restore legal aid for benefits appeal cases if elected.

Move would encourage DWP to get decisions right first time, reducing MoJ costs, says party.

A Labour government will restore legal aid for people appealing against cuts to benefits such as universal credit, the shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, is to announce.

Those seeking to challenge decisions by the Department for Work and Pensions on welfare payments, many of which are incorrect, will be able to obtain legal advice to help them pursue appeals, Labour is pledging.

Burgon argues that restoring such financial support would encourage the DWP to get decisions right first time, thereby reducing costs for the Ministry of Justice.

More than two-thirds of appeals against DWP decisions on personal independence payments (Pips) and employment support allowance (ESA) are successful, says Labour, adding that those decisions have affected thousands of vulnerable people with illnesses, disabilities or in poor health.

Since the coalition government’s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo) came into effect in early 2013, the number of people receiving legal aid to challenge benefit decisions has fallen by 99%. The MoJ spends more than £100m a year on tribunals disputing appeals against benefit decisions. In addition, the DWP has spent more than £100m on Pips and ESA reviews and appeals since October 2015.

The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, warned last month that cuts to legal aid meant many could no longer afford “to challenge benefit denials or reductions” and were “thus effectively deprived of their human right to a remedy”.

Since Laspo came into effect, many expert benefit lawyers have left the field because cases were no longer funded. The MoJ has experienced the deepest cuts of any Whitehall department since 2010; its budget is to shrink further over the next two years.

Burgon said: “People should never be expected to navigate a complex appeals process all by themselves. That can force some to give up their claim altogether after a wrong initial decision. Others endure months of stress trying to prepare their own case. It’s bad now but will be even more difficult after universal credit’s rollout.

“Cuts to early legal advice have been a false economy. Ensuring that people are armed with expert legal advice to take on incorrect benefits decisions will not only help people get the benefits they are entitled to, it should make it less likely that flawed decision takes place in the first place, which would be good for the individuals themselves, and help to tackle the tens of millions of pounds spent on administering appeals against flawed decisions.”

The number of claimants granted legal aid in benefits cases has plummeted from 91,431 in 2012-13 to 478 in 2017-18, according to Legal Aid Agency figures.

A 2010 Citizens Advice report (pdf) concluded that for every £1 of legal aid expenditure on benefits advice, the state potentially saved £8.80.

Labour estimates that to restore early legal advice to pre-Laspo levels for benefits cases would cost £18m a year and help about 90,000 cases.

The party has already pledged to restore legal aid funding for advice in all housing cases, reversing far-reaching cuts imposed by the government five years ago. It has also promised to re-establish early advice entitlements in the family courts and to review the legal aid means tests.
Justice gap : the towns where there’s no access to free legal advice.

Six years after devastating cuts to legal aid, many areas of Wales and England are without vital support.

Ebbw Vale is an hour by train from Cardiff, a journey through the Welsh valleys that offers reminders of its industrial past: the redundant pithead at Cwm, the last deep mine in the area, to Ebbw Vale Parkway station on the site of the world-famous steelworks that once employed 13,000 but closed in 2002.

“You walk down the high street in Ebbw Vale and you see the boarded-up shops, testimony to a town that’s suffered greatly and changed out of all recognition over the last 20 years, and since the steelworks closed,” says local solicitor, Glyn Maddocks.

At the local foodbank, in the former magistrate’s court, I visited as part of a project run by Cardiff University looking at the impact of the govermment’s 2013 legal aid cuts on the threadbare and fraying safety net of advice agencies and what happens to people who fall through the gaps. Universal credit was rolled out last June.

Sharon Morgan has complex benefit problems that need the attention of a legal aid social security law expert. Deductions are being taken from her benefits because of an advance made to cover the five-week wait for her first universal credit payment. She is also repaying child tax credit that was erroneously paid for eight weeks after the death of her young son from leukaemia. It is a loss of income that has tipped a grief-stricken family into crisis.“We live from day to day, hand-to-mouth,” says her mother. “People have helped but everyone’s in the same situation.”

In Ebbw Vale there are no legal aid lawyers, no Citizens Advice and no law centre. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo) slashed the legal aid budget in England and Wales by a third in April 2013. It removed £751m and swaths of legal advice from the legal aid scheme, including welfare benefits, housing (except where there is a risk of homelessness), employment, family law (unless there is evidence of domestic violence) and immigration. In Wales, there were 31 providers of publicly funded benefits advice: now there are three.

The fragile advice sectorhas been hit by a doubly whammy of Laspo and local authority cuts. Before 2013, legal aid would typically account for 40% of a law centre’s income and 40% from local authorities. Since Laspo, the income of law centres has halved and 11 have been forced to close, leaving none in the whole of Wales and only 43 in England offering specialist advice for those who cannot afford to pay a lawyer.

The Law Society defines an advice desert as an area where advice is not available through legal aid or where there is only one provider locally. It reckons that almost a third of legal aid areas in England and Wales now have only one or no local legal aid housing advice providers at all.

Daniel Newman, a law lecturer based at Cardiff University working on its Laspo project, recently gave evidence to the Commission on Justice in Wales on advice deserts. “The south Wales valleys, rural and remote, are a legal aid advice desert. Few places in the UK are as overlooked as Ebbw Vale,” he says.

Mid-Wales, the north-east and the Vale of Glamorgan could also be labelled deserts, he adds. “We’ve seen closures of law centres and Citizens Advice branches, and a reliance on small voluntary groups, often church-led, to try and fill the gaps. Laspo has been a disaster for those who would otherwise been helped, but what’s less understood is that it’s seriously damaged what remained of the advice sector by removing an income stream.” .

There are problems in England too. Bolton, in Greater Manchester, might not qualify as a legal advice desert: there are two providers with housing legal aid contracts, including Citizens Advice Bolton. Yet its chief executive, Richard Wilkinson, says the sector has been “decimated”. He says: “It’s “virtually impossible for someone to access specialist legal advice in social welfare law”.

I previously visited Bolton eight years ago, before the Laspo cuts. Its waiting room is as busy as it was then when Citizens Advice helped 14,000 people. In 2018 it helped 10,807.

“The numbers coming in mightn’t be dissimilar but what they get now is one-off advice,” Wilkinson says. “They don’t get deeper case work and they don’t get representation in courts or tribunals. People are disappearing through the cracks.”

Citizens Advice is a shadow of its former self. In 2011 it had 55 staff, now it has 24. “We had four funding sources, and 70% of income was from legal aid. Now we have half the income and five times the number of income streams, such as a £3,000 grant for an outreach project and £5,000 to work local schools.” Citizens Advice still has legal aid contracts for community care, housing, immigration and some benefits advice. Back in 2010, under its legal aid contract, the bureau had 1,700 cases for welfare benefits. “All gone,” says Wilkinson.

Suffolk Law Centre is a tiny oasis in a vast legal advice desert in this corner of East Anglia. “There isn’t a single housing lawyer in Suffolk. We haven’t had once since 2014,” says the director of legal services, Audrey Ludwig. The county’s image of rural prosperity disguises serious legal need. According to figures from the End Child Poverty campaign published last year, in two constituencies (Ipswich and Waveney) almost 30% of children are considered to be living in poverty.

The law centre was set up 12 months ago and was born out of the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality. A small team of 12 paid staff works across both charities, and the law centre draws on 100 volunteers, including local lawyers, to hold clinics in family, employment housing, immigration and personal injury advice.

According to Ludwig, the centre’s funding is “precarious”, coming from a range of project grants, with little core funding and no legal aid. “We are a sticking plaster,” he says. “We have waiting lists of several months.”

Last year the fledgling law centre won a legal aid contract for a much-needed housing lawyer. It was the only organisation to tender. The contract was conditional on the centre being able to recruit a supervising housing lawyer with three years’ experience. It has advertised three times but, so far, hasn’t been able to fill the post because so many experienced lawyers have left the field. “It’s a sad reflection of the state of sector,” says Ludwig.

Back in Ebbw Vale, Maddocks, who is a member of the Law Society’s human rights committee, reflects on the devastating impact the 2013 legal aid cuts have had on access to justice for ordinary people. But she adds: “The reality is that access to publicly funded legal advice has always been massively variable and provision patchy. There has never been much by way of legal aid in the valleys and the quality of that advice, often from one-man bands, hasn’t always been great. In the days of coal and steel, people were looked after by their own communities, through local groups and their unions. That’s all gone. There is nothing in its place.”

Last month the government belatedly published its five-year review of Laspo. As a result, it has promised £8m, mainly for IT, aimed at “making sure that people can access the right help”.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman says: “Every person should have access to legal advice when they need it – that’s why the Legal Aid Agency keeps availability under constant review and takes urgent action whenever it has concerns … Legal aid services are not set by local authority area so even where a local authority has no providers its residents will be covered by other providers nearby. There are now more law firm branches offering legal aid services than under the previous contracts.”
Woman told to pay towards inquest into daughter's death in care.

Mother of Taylor Alice Williams, 17, who died in secure children’s home, is disabled.

A disabled woman who cannot work has been told to pay thousands of pounds for lawyers to represent her at the inquest into her daughter’s death in a secure children’s home.

The Ministry of Justice’s requirement that the mother makes a significant contribution towards courtroom costs has been condemned by her lawyers and campaigners calling for fully-funded legal representation for bereaved relatives.

A preliminary hearing into the death two years ago of Taylor Alice Williams, 17, in Aycliffe secure children’s home, in County Durham, was due to open on Friday at Crook coroner’s court.

Aycliffe has been among the subjects of an investigation by the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse (IICSA), which heard allegations a 15-year-old girl had been sexually abused there.

A prisons and probation ombudsman report into Williams’ death, in February 2017, found she had previously tried to kill herself and had self-harmed more than 100 times. After telling staff she wanted to go back to her room to sleep, she was later found with a ligature around her neck.

Inquest and other civil rights groups have called on the MoJ to provide automatic funding for bereaved relatives when they attend an inquest into deaths involving state agencies such as the police, prisons and hospitals.

In such hearings, representation is invariably provided for staff and institutions but legal aid funding is often denied to families. In this case, the mother had been given exceptional case funding by the Legal Aid Agency but told she still had to cover 25% of the fees.

Because of the complexity of the case an experienced QC is required. Even a quarter of the fees would run into thousands of pounds, which the mother cannot afford. Both the solicitor and barrister in the case are therefore appearing partially pro bono.

Alice Stevens, of the law firm Broudie Jackson Canter, the solicitor who represents the mother, said: “Taylor’s death is a tragedy. She was a highly vulnerable child who was under the care of the state.

“Her death must be fully investigated to establish how such a vulnerable child came to die in a secure children’s home. This is clearly a matter of wider public interest. The Legal Aid Agency’s request for a contribution from her vulnerable mother is simply astonishing and we hope that this matter will be quickly rectified.

“Inquests are supposed to be fact-finding and non-adversarial in nature, however, unfortunately, in the case of Taylor’s inquest, the entire process has been an unnecessary fight to date. The tragedy of Taylor’s death and the importance of this inquest must not be lost. It is vital that a full and fearless investigation into Taylor’s death is conducted. This will only be possible if her mother is able to fully participate in the inquest process. Without legal aid, her effective participation will be impossible.”

Deborah Coles, the executive director of Inquest, which supports families at coroners’ courts, said: “What can be more serious than the death of a child in the care of the state? A child placed in care because of her vulnerability, a serious history of self-harm who then dies.

“This is a death that needs the most searching scrutiny. That her disabled mother has been asked to contribute to funding while three state organisations [the county and local councils and NHS foundation trust] are represented from the public purse is deplorable and exemplifies the cruelty and unfairness of the funding system.”

An MoJ spokesperson said: “Our thoughts are with the family of Taylor Alice Williams. While our review of legal aid showed that legal representation is not necessary for the vast majority of inquests, we are making a number of changes to ensure there’s more support for bereaved families.”

The MoJ is currently reviewing the means-tested thresholds for legal aid awards.
Not only the loss os legal aid , places to find legal aid have also disappeared on many manors :

Legal advice centres in England and Wales halved since 2013-14.

Reduction has been caused by cuts to legal aid and local authority funding.

Half of all law centres and not-for-profit legal advice services in England and Wales have closed over the past six years, according to government figures.

The scale of the reduction, caused by deep cuts to both legal aid and local authority funding, is revealed in figures obtained through parliamentary questions.

In 2013-14 there were 94 local areas with law centres or agencies offering free legal services, the Ministry of Justice has confirmed. By this year, 2019-20, the number had fallen to just 47.

The figures were given in answer to questions by Richard Burgon, the shadow justice secretary. They also reveal that, between 2010-11 and 2018-19, MoJ funding for law centres through legal aid contracts dropped from £12.1m to £7.1m.

The impact was caused by a double blow because removal of legal aid eligibility for many types of cases coincided with a financial crisis among local authorities, which have been forced to withdraw support for local law centres.

Burgon, the Leeds East MP, said: “Deliberately undermining law centres in this way is yet another indictment of the Tories’ shameful record on justice.

“The weakening of law centres and legal aid is part of the same austerity agenda that has inflicted such damage on working-class communities. These cuts leave people without the legal support they need to fight back against their services being slashed and their rights being trampled on. That’s not a by-product, but the actual aim of cruel Tory policies that restrict access to justice.”

Burgon, who was visiting a law centre in his constituency as part of a campaign by the all-party parliamentary group on legal aid, added: “Labour is committed to investing in law centres so that communities can once again defend their hard-won rights and take on the dodgy landlords, unscrupulous bosses and other exploitative people in positions of power that benefit from the hollowing out of our legal aid system.”

The party said it would build more law centres if it won the next election.

Julie Bishop, director of the Law Centres Network, warned that several more law centres were in a “precarious” state and likely to close soon. She said there were about 40 independent law centres surviving in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with at least 11 having closed since the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (Laspo) Act sliced about £950m off the annual legal aid budget.

Bishop said: “A lot of smaller aid agencies and Citizens Advice bureaux have withdrawn from providing legal services. There’s been a real shrinkage.

“We are anticipating that a couple of other law centres may close. Local authorities have been cut massively and they have withdrawn funding from the sector. People cannot get access to legal help and demand continues to grow.

“We have 1.5 million people living in destitution. Law centres say they have not seen it so bad in terms of people’s situations after nine years of austerity.”

The MoJ provided transitional funding for law centres following the Laspo cuts. Its figures record that the number of advice services increased in 2013 but then reduced significantly thereafter.

In his written answer, the justice minister Paul Maynard said the MoJ was investing up to £5m to “deliver innovative services … offering support to people with social welfare problems like housing, including an expansion of early legal advice to determine the most effective solutions”.

The Law Centres Network was one of the charities supported by the Guardian in its Christmas appeal last year. Earlier this year the Guardian revealed that more than half of all magistrates courts in England and Wales have closed since 2010.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Every person should have access to legal advice when they need it – that’s why the Legal Aid Agency keeps availability under constant review and takes urgent actions whenever it has concerns.

“We spent £1.6bn on legal aid last year and in addition to the Civil Legal Advice telephone service, we are investing £5m in innovative technologies to help people access legal support wherever they are.”

The latest figures, the department cautioned, may reflect consolidation where law centres may have closed offices but continue to deal with large volumes of legal aid work.