Saturday, 5 February 2011

Last line of defence!

This is the heading for an article written for the Guardian by Helen Grant MP, Conservative MP for Maidstone and the Waeld. Helen is a Legal Aid Solicitor; and she expresses concern at her Government's intention to cut a third off the £2 billion Legal Aid budget stating that
"Legal Aid is the only shield in the armoury for the vulnerable. Without it, justice will be eroded."

This article is quite a damning indictement of the coalition government's intention to reduce the Legal Aid budget whilst demand for services continues to rise. This isn't just about reducing Legal Aid for court work but Legal Aid also funds advice centres like Citizens Advice Bureaux's who receive a significant chunks of their funding via the Legal Services Commission to provide debt advice and representation in Court...all this will go if this green paper does what it proposes. Helen Grant goes on to say:
My firm continues to work in partnership with citizens advice bureaux, law centres, not-for-profit (NFP) organisations and charities in the south-east, and I remain in personal contact with many of them. They tell me that the predicted increase in volume and complexity of cases will be both unmanageable and unsustainable, even under existing funding arrangements. This will only be exacerbated by the forthcoming reductions in their own legal aid funding and other cuts in revenue from local authorities, charitable donations and central government grants.

These proposals could be the straw that breaks the camel's back, effectively dismantling an established infrastructure which achieves an amazing amount with very little. What a waste. NFP doesn't mean: "No funds, please" – they need cash just to stand still, let alone absorb the fallout from the legal sector.

Over the last three decades the distance between the haves and have- nots has increased, and our society has weakened due to the demise of the family unit and the rise of the benefits culture. These are ailments that will take some time to cure; but to stem the flow of legal aid while we are in such a critical condition, amid a stifling recession, could prove devastating.

Local Authorities need to be aware of the crisis that is being created nationally when making funding decisions on third sector and voluntary organisations. This is not happening at the moment which was evidenced by Birmingham City Council's decision to cut £600,000 from Citizens Advice service and Wrecsam CBC's decision to cease funding Shelter Cymru for providing specialised housing advice. These are 'double whammy's' that we could well do without and we need some 'joined up thinking' between national and local government on how these organisations are funded.

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