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Campaign to save civil legal aid boosted by justice committee inquiry

17 January 2011

Justice for All, a campaign to save free civil legal advice from disappearing as a result of the government’s drastic legal aid cuts, has been launched at the House of Commons.

Sir Alan Beith, the Lib Dem elder statesman and chairman of the Commons justice select committee, told a packed meeting room that his committee would begin an “urgent inquiry” into the cuts next month.

“We recognise as a committee that the government faces a major challenge with the overall cost of legal aid,” Sir Alan said.

“But, if we don’t structure this right, then at precisely the time voluntary organisations are affected by budget cuts they will find that calls on them from individuals will be much more numerous and demanding.

“What will be needed if the changes to legal aid go through in their present form is to ensure that vulnerable people are protected. We will need to see clear evidence that work is going on to ensure that support is provided in the future.”

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said Sir Alan was right to remind the audience that there would have to be savings from legal aid, but not in the area of social welfare law.

He warned that if the government did not provide free civil legal advice it would not save money in the long term.

“It is obvious that the government has chosen this area, not because they are heartless but because you shout the quietest – unlike the criminal Bar,” he said.

“You must give the justice committee the empirical evidence it needs to make the government do a U-turn. This campaign needs to snowball.”

Yvonne Fovargue, chair elect of the legal aid all-party parliamentary group and Labour MP for Makerfield, said she had worked for a CAB for more than 20 years and knew how valuable legal aid was to her clients.

“There is no point in having the law unless you have access to it and it should not depend on how much money you’ve got,” she said.

A former client of housing charity Shelter spoke through her tears to explain how legal aid had changed her life.

The woman, introduced only as Deborah, said she was a victim of domestic violence and had lived in a refuge with her ten-year-old daughter for seven months. She said Shelter had taken “immediate action” to find her a new home and when they were harassed by neighbours she said Shelter had taken action again.

“If you take away legal aid, you take away hope,” she said.

Steve Hynes, director of LAG and a member of Justice for All’s organising committee, said afterwards: “We didn’t expect the numbers we got and particularly the numbers of MPs. Momentum is building.

“Advice agencies face a triple whammy of legal aid cuts, local government cuts and the end of the financial inclusion scheme at a time when the numbers coming through the door are increasing.”

Carol Storer, director of the LAPG and also on the committee, said the campaign had got off to a good start.

“It was very heartening to see how many people came into the meeting and lobbied their MPs.

“The issue for firms is whether what is left after the cuts would enable them to run a viable business. Their business model would have changed completely.

“I do not believe the government has understood the implications of what they are proposing.”

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Regulators Legal Aid Termination