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GPs report knock-on effect of legal aid cuts

Simple social welfare problems are 'spiralling out of control'

3 December 2014

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The number of patients who would benefit from legal advice has increased, according to the majority of doctors.

Researchers, commissioned by charity the Legal Action Group (LAG) and supported by the Law Society, asked a sample of 1001 general practitioners (GPs) whether they believed the number of patients who would have benefited from advice on common legal problems had increased, decreased or stayed the same over the past 12 months.

A total of 88 per cent of the GPs questioned agreed that patients not being able to obtain legal or specialist advice about their problems would have a negative impact on their health.

Two thirds of GPs reported that the number of patients who had issues with benefits would have benefited from legal advice had certainly increased. This was followed closely by debts or financial problems and issues at work as GPS reported a 65 per cent increase.

Just over half of the doctors polled reported a rise in the number of patients with housing problems. A similar proportion reported the same in relation to community care. The lowest proportion was for advice on immigration law, at 30 per cent.

Commenting on the poll's findings, LAG's director Steve Hynes said: "[We] believe this polling evidence demonstrates the false economy of cutting legal aid for common everyday problems. With early advice, many social welfare law problems can be simple to resolve, but without this they can spiral out of control. This leads to injustice for many people and greater costs to health and other services."

According to a report published by the National Audit Office (NAO), the government has cut spending on civil legal aid by £300m since April 2013. Civil legal aid is no longer available in benefits and employment cases and has also been severely restricted for housing, debt and immigration cases. The NAO report warned that people who previously received advice might suffer health problems, which would have a knock-on impact on public services.

National charity Citizens Advice has led the argument for a linkage between ability to obtain advice on civil legal matters and better health outcomes. A study undertaken by Bangor University in association with the charity five years ago showed significant improvements in health outcomes for its Citizens Advice Cymru bureau clients.

In what LAG's research describes as a "tangible demonstration of the linkage between health and advice", the local bureau operated 640 advice surgeries at GP surgeries in 2010. Evidence indicated that a large percentage of medical professionals believed advice from Citizens Advice Bureaux led to better health outcomes for their patients.

President of the Law Society, Andrew Caplen, added: "This is independent research that the government should not ignore. GPs are giving a clear warning that lack of legal advice can have consequences for a person's health. The government should look at putting back support for legal and specialist advice services for social welfare law problems."

John van der Luit-Drummond is legal reporter for Solicitors Journal

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