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Legal aid cuts force advice agencies to consider charging

5 July 2011

Advice agencies, whose role until now has been to provide free advice to the poorest people in society, are being forced to consider charging by the government’s legal aid cuts.

Steve Johnson, chief executive of the independent network AdviceUK, said six of his agencies were running a pilot fee-charging service to prepare for the future if the cuts come into force.

Johnson said the cuts were already causing “significant damage” to the sector and had forced five to ten per cent of agencies to close by April this year.

“The outlook is very grim,” Johnson told a Legal Action Group conference on the future of social welfare law. “We could be talking ten to 15 per cent less advice agencies or it could be 40 per cent.”

Johnson said advice agencies had faced uncertainty before but the situation now was different.

He said that ten years ago advice agencies received 80 per cent of their funding from local authorities. Since then they had succeeded in diversifying but many of their funding streams were seriously in doubt.

“It’s like a pack of cards. A small withdrawal of funding can bring down the whole edifice.”

Earlier justice minister Jonathan Djanogly made it clear that the government would not be making substantial changes to its civil legal aid cuts.

He admitted that this would have “significant implications for the future of social welfare law” and that a “large proportion” of social welfare advice would be discontinued.

However, he said £50m of advice would still be funded and there was a “real pan-government commitment” to the provision of general advice.

Djanogly said that, following the consultation on the legal aid green paper, the introduction of a telephone service as a compulsory gateway to civil legal aid was limited to the four areas of community care, special educational needs, discrimination and debt – where a home was at risk.

He said ministers wanted to expand the service to new areas, but would “extend it in a more cautious way following the consultation”.

He was most flexible about Clause 12 of the legal aid bill, which gives the government the ability to restrict free legal advice at police stations.

Djanogly said the government had “absolutely no intention to take away legal help from police stations” and was ready to discuss the matter when the bill reached its committee stage.

Carol Storer, director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, said there had been “no movement at all” from the justice minister on the civil legal aid cuts, apart from the “tiny tweeks” already in the bill.

She said that on the definition of domestic violence, an area where concessions were expected, requirements in the bill on victims to produce evidence had made the situation worse.

Storer said that for some people working in the advice sector, the idea of charging clients was “shocking”, but people had to be realistic about whether their organisation could survive.

“What do you do?” she asked. “Start issuing redundancy notices or start charging people?”

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Legal Aid Tax & Wealth structuring