Just had a quite depressing meeting with the Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucs Advice Network, which represents organisations providing advice services in the local area.
They were here to brief MPs on the Justice for All campaign, against the Government’s Green Paper on “Reform to the Legal Aid System”, which is out for consultation until 14th February. The Government’s proposals include cutting Legal Aid for: all welfare benefits advice (other than cases which go to judicial review, and how would someone know they were entitled to seek judicial review without taking legal advice in the first place); 90% of debt advice services (other than cases where a person’s home is at risk, which apparently means where a repossession order has been issued); all immigration cases (asylum cases will still be funded); and all employment cases. Anyone with assets of £1000 or more, which includes the value of someone’s house, will not be eligible; so a pensioner who owns their own home, won’t be.
On top of this, the Government will not confirm whether debt advice under the Financial Inclusion Fund will be renewed at the end of the financial year, and of course, local authority support for advice services is under threat, although Bristol City Council has already pledged to protect and ringfence its funding in this area.
And of course, this comes at a time when there is likely to be more demand than ever for such services, as people lose their jobs, struggle to claim benefits, get into financial difficulties… The Ministry of Justice seems to think that the gaps can be plugged by more telephone advice, legal costs insurance, voluntary sector advice agencies and pro bono services.
An Equalities Impact Assessment has been carried out by the Government, and it shows that these reforms will hit the poorest, the elderly, BME communities, those with disabilities, etc, the hardest. Has that made any difference at all to the Government’s plans? No.
The campaign will be stepped up over the next month, and there will be a demonstration in Bristol against the cuts in Queen’s Square at 12 midday on Monday 7th February.