Legal Aid cuts are another attack on our poorest families

KATHY Meade is Britain’s 2010 ‘Social Welfare Solicitor of the Year’ who now finds herself in a titanic struggle to survive Government cuts and keep free access to Legal Aid for the poor. She gives her time helping people in need of a lawyer in a deprived East End now struggling its way through the recession.

The Tower Hamlets Law Centre’s housing benefits solicitor explains why she is taking her struggle to Parliament in a mass lobby next Wednesday:

FIRST the Government announced cuts to Housing Benefit for low income families and the long-term unemployed.

Then came the abolition of Education Maintenance allowance for school-leavers aged 16 to 19—and a huge 8.9 per cent cut in local council budgets.

Now the Government is proposing to bring an end to Legal aid as we know it.

Access to justice has been a pillar of the welfare state for 60 years. Legal Aid stands alongside the NHS, welfare benefits and free education to ensure that no-one should lose out just because they are poor.

The Welfare State is far from perfect—but the goal is one I certainly still believe in.

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People turn to legal advisers when they have not been able to sort out a problem themselves.

Every day people come to us at Tower Hamlets Law Centre for help—a benefit has been cut, someone has lost their job unfairly, a visa for a family reunion has been refused, an overcrowded family needs to move.

Sometimes a phone-call or letter is all it takes—but often specialist legal help or representation is needed to resolve the problem.

Legal assistance at the right time can prevent things spiraling out of control and can stop disastrous consequences for the person in need of our help and extra costs to society.

But from October 2012, the Government plans to change all that, with a Bill going before Parliament this coming spring.

Specialist free legal advice on welfare benefits, immigration, education, debt and employment are being cut from the Legal Aid scheme entirely.

Some housing advice will be available for people facing eviction—but not for those wanting help with a homeless application.

The Government also wants a telephone advice line to be the only way of accessing what is left of Legal Aid.

A call centre operator will assess whether you are eligible for help, then a second person will provide initial advice.

This will be of little use to people who cannot speak English very well, who don’t have a phone or have communication difficulties.

Legal Aid helped just over a million people last year—but this is being cut by more than half. Such deep cuts have not been suggested for any other public service.

Government figures state that the ‘not for profit’ sector—organisations such as Island Advice, Citizens’ Advice, Toynbee Hall and the Law Centre here in Whitechapel, will lose 92 per cent of their Legal Aid funding.

Yet the Government also states that these are the very agencies which will step in when Legal Aid has been taken away.

I wonder how these agencies will step in to help people in debt when council grants and other Government funds are being axed at the same time. Many community advice agencies and legal aid solicitor firms will be forced to close.

My advice—and it’s free—if anyone opposes these Government plans and wants to know what they can do about it is to tell them, and even lobby their MP at Westminster next Wednesday.

The Government says it wants to hear what people think of these proposals. We have until February 14 to let them know. There is a lobby of Parliament on January 12.

People can contact their MP or call into the Law Centre here in Whitechapel Road and give us their views to pass on.

Without people speaking out, these changes will go through and vital advice services will be lost for ever. We all have to stand up for Legal Aid.