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Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Access to Justice - The Waste Land

April is the cruellest month
Breeding lilacs out of the dead land
                                             TS Eliot

I was at a meeting yesterday with various advice agencies discussing the problem of what happens to those in need after April 1st when Legal Aid is wiped out for many areas of work. Waste Land is the only way to describe it. And those most in need are the worst affected.

Advice on welfare benefits is removed entirely from the scope of legal aid. The Liverpool Citizens’ Advice Bureaux have been among the leading providers of advice in this field. In the last few years they have been able to assist 2500 people in debt cases and 6270 people with welfare rights issues. That is a total of 8770 people is the direst of need. After 1st April they will be able to advise…. None. Of course their dedicated workers do not want to let people down and many will continue help clients on a voluntary basis. But the reality is that thousands of our most vulnerable are going to be deprived of professional advice and assistance.

The much derided Bedroom Tax is an example of the hardship that might be caused. This is the draconian measure that will see the poorest tenants have their Housing Benefit reduced if they have too many rooms. Under the rules mixed sex siblings are expected to share rooms, some disabled tenants will be penalised if they have double occupancy and parents who share residence of children will have to choose which one is allowed the extra room. It is one of the most heartless attacks on he poor imaginable. I recently heard Minister Iain Duncan Smith trying to defend by saying it was designed to ‘help’ people move into more suitable accommodation. The reality is that tenants on the breadline will lose income but still be liable for the same rent. So they will go into arrears. Then they face eviction. And at the time that they most need legal help the government is taking away their right to legal aid. To make matters worse, most experts say that there so called ‘suitable accommodation’ doesn’t exist.

This is just one example.

The county’s most Senior Judge – Lord Neuberger who is head of the Supreme Court has recently spoken of the social danger of these policies. He has said openly what most of think – “that those frustrated by an inability to seek justice would take the law into their own hands".

These are policies from a government that is committing to spending billions on a nuclear deterrent to save us from a threat which is largely fanciful while allowing its own most needy citizens to pay the cost.

Many lawyers will provide free advice to save the suffering of the worst.

But that will only be a sticking plaster until these cuts are reversed. And the sooner the better.

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