Campaigners have warned that vulnerable people will suffer from government plans to remove legal aid from many social welfare cases.
The plans, announced by justice secretary Kenneth Clarke this week, are intended to cut the £2bn annual legal aid bill by £350m by 2014-15.
Legal aid will be retained for public law family and asylum cases, mental health tribunals, cases involving domestic violence or forced marriage, and debt and housing matters that could put people at risk of losing their homes.
But it will be removed from child contact and residence cases that do not involve domestic violence, appeals against benefits decisions, employment tribunals, debt or housing cases that do not involve homelessness, and immigration issues.
The government said it would fund mediation for couples in dispute over their children as a “better alternative” to the courts.
“Withdrawal of legal aid for social welfare advice or big reductions in provision with no alternative on offer would leave the most vulnerable overwhelmed by problems with nowhere to turn, and do nothing to address the significant unmet demand that already exists,” said Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice.
The National Aids Trust was “extremely disappointed” about the removal of legal aid from employment cases.
Chief executive Deborah Jack said it would prevent people with HIV and others with disabilities from asserting new rights to challenge employers who discriminated on health grounds against job applicants.
She also expressed concern over the cuts to benefits and immigration cases. Both systems had been subject to “almost constant change” in recent years, so good legal advice was crucial for claimants, she said.
The Disability Alliance attacked assertions in the government’s consultation document that people claiming benefits had access to legal advice from sources other than legal aid, including the alliance itself.
In a letter to the Ministry of Justice, alliance director of policy Neil Coyle said the statement “misrepresents the reality” of its own provision and called for it to be withdrawn because it “demonstrates an unacceptable lack of understanding about the availability of current support”.
Chair David Allison pointed out that 90% of couples settled their disputes outside court, so those who sought legal aid did so for a good reason, such as “intimidation by one partner over another or an imbalance of financial power in the relationship”.
He added: “Resolving a financial dispute through legal aid can prevent a vulnerable spouse from becoming dependent on the state.”
Allison was also “deeply worried that mediation is being seen as a universal panacea”.
“Mediation has a real and useful role to play, but there are dangers in this approach, which ignores the range of non-court options,” he added.
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