This morning the legal aid minister, Shailesh Vara MP, has commented on Law Centres when giving evidence to parliament's Justice Committee on the effect of civil legal aid cuts.
The minister says that £1.5bn per year should be enough to provide a decent legal aid system. We agree, but the legal aid system as it currently is does not deliver that. "We do not have the privilege of also spending money at an earlier stage," says the minister. Law Centres think that in times of belt-tightening we do not have the privilege to not invest in acting early and solving problems before they escalate.
Discussing the value of early legal advice, which senior judges have strongly supported just last week, the minister has said that "indirectly the government and the taxpayer are funding early intervention through Law Centres, Citizens Advice Bureaux and so on," mentioning our Coventry and Avon & Bristol Law Centres. He added that, "whilst there may not be specific and direct funding for early intervention, in a round-about way the taxpayer is contributing towards that measure."
We want to clarify:
- Legal aid funding does not sustain Law Centres - in fact it has become a small and decreasing funding source for them, and the sweeping cuts have already led ten Law Centres to close.
- Legal aid only pays for casework - it does not cover the rent or bills, or one-off advice, educating groups about the law, and many other services that Law Centres provide.
- Legal aid pays for fewer and fewer of Law Centre cases - following the cuts only very little of social welfare law is still covered by legal aid. That minority is focused at serious cases that have already escalated, rather than allowing us to nip problems in the bud.
For the second time this year, the Ministry of Justice is adding insult to injury. This time it is by cutting legal aid funding yet claiming credit for work that Law Centres do without it.
If the legal aid minister really wants to help disadvantaged people in need to solve their problems without getting to court, we invite him to give Law Centres direct financial support. Community-based legal advice works, and is hugely beneficial - but it needs to be supported!