Wiltshire Law Centre, the legal advice charity that has been in Swindon for over 30 years, is facing closure in three years because of public expenditure cutbacks and is urging past users, and anybody likely to need legal support, to contact them to offer help
Currently funded by the Legal Services Commission to provide free specialist legal advice in welfare benefits, housing, debt and employment, last year the Law Centre opened 1,400 cases and gave advice to over 4,000 people and their families. During this time, it assisted clients in claiming £1 million in benefits and helped reduce debts by nearly £1m.
Recently, the Legal Services Commission selected Wiltshire Law Centre to continue to provide legal aid services under a contract that was due to last three years and started in November 2010. This has allowed an increase in staff and the centre now has nine advisors who between them have over 50 years experience. They include two solicitors, a barrister and six skilled caseworkers.
But in almost the same breath, the government announced in the public spending review a wide range of cuts to the Legal Aid scheme to take effect from 2013. All the categories of law currently undertaken by the Wiltshire Law Centre will be taken out of the scope of legal aid.
The announcement seriously undermines the Law Centre’s ability to continue to provide free legal advice. If the cuts go through as proposed the Law Centre will almost certainly have to close its doors in March 2013 leaving hundreds of vulnerable and disadvantaged people with nowhere to go for specialist help.
The Wiltshire Law Centre, like others across the UK, have raised the implications of reducing legal aid and funding with their MPs during the current consultation phase.
Neil Baker, Law Centre office manager, is appealing for help from people who have been a client in the past or anticipate needing legal assistance in the future to contact him to see how they can help.
He is also urging people to contact the town’s two MPs Robert Buckland and Justin Tomlinson to raise their concerns.
To contact Wiltshire Law Centre call 486926 and mail: email@example.com.
Legal Aid cuts fatally flawed
Coalition proposals set to create misery and administrative chaos at taxpayer’s expense writes Teresa Richardson of Resolution www.resolution.org.uk
Ill-considered, rushed and draconian Government proposals to cut legal aid risk creating devastating consequences for families and children. Even some victims of domestic violence could be denied legal help, said family law association Resolution today as the coalition government consultation on legal aid reform closes.
The proposed cuts could also create spiraling costs for the taxpayer and create chaos in the family court system.
David Allison, Chair of Resolution, said: “The Government’s deeply-flawed proposed cuts could spell the end of family legal aid in England and Wales. They would certainly be a hammer blow for huge numbers of families and children, creating a society in which it is virtually impossible to gain free legal help when going through the pain of divorce and separation.
“The Government should shelve these quick-fix proposals, and take a more considered, constructive approach. That includes fully joined-up thinking with its own on-going Family Justice Review. Otherwise the Government risks creating an expensive mess that will cause misery for huge numbers of families and children.”
Resolution’s major concerns include the fact that large groups of vulnerable people will no longer be eligible for legal help, including people wanting to divorce or whose partner wants to divorce them. The only option available to families who still qualify for legal aid will be mediation, which is not suitable for all cases.
“A fatal flaw in the government’s proposal to only fund mediation to separating families is the fact that it requires both people to be willing to take part. If one parent is denying contact to another, or refusing to be reasonable about money they can simply refuse to attend mediation.
“The only option for those then left suffering injustice is to give up, or to represent themselves in court. No easy task at the best of times, let alone at a time of high emotional stress,” said David Allison.
Other large groups of people in need – including parents who need legal help in tracing or arranging contact with their children and cohabitants at risk of losing their home – will also no longer be eligible for legal aid, except when there has been recent domestic violence.
For such people the Government is using a definition of domestic violence that is needlessly and unhelpfully narrow – leaving people suffering domestic abuse particularly vulnerable and possibly having to represent themselves against their abuser in court.
Other key concerns are that all legal aid will only be accessed through a single government telephone helpline – a proposal that could have a disproportionate impact on ethnic minorities, young people and women and needs further thought and consultation.
“Legal aid should be given a higher priority in the Government’s funding choices. Access to justice is a basic human right and a mark of a civilized society,” said David Allison.
Resolution also says that the Government’s proposals could be the final nail in the coffin for many legal aid providers, leaving too few lawyers able to help the small numbers of vulnerable people who would still be protected by family legal aid.
The reduction of family legal aid cases will inevitably result in large numbers of people representing themselves in family courts, a problem that the Government admits it has not assessed. Increased numbers of people representing themselves in court will clog up the family court system, with cases taking much longer than at present.
Resolution is campaigning to persuade the Government of the urgent need to review its controversial proposals, and ensure that legal aid genuinely does provide access to justice for the vulnerable.