Free legal advice under threat as new Bill puts agency funds at risk

CUTS to funding for free legal advice will only pressure the most vulnerable people, an MP has warned.

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill could put Citizens Advice Bureaux, law centres and independent community access advice agencies across the country at risk, claims Wentworth and Dearne MP John Healey.

Mr Healey and fellow Rotherham MPs Kevin Barron and Denis MacShane met representatives from Rotherham’s advice agencies to discuss concerns about the impact of the government’s legal aid and welfare reforms on this area.

Mr Healey said: “This is free help and advice with common problems like debt, housing, benefits and family issues.

“It helps protect disabled people, domestic violence victims and sufferers of industrial diseases – so these cuts will leave the most vulnerable without legal support when things go wrong.

“Help at this early stage actually saves more money than it costs. It stops cases spiralling into crises and catastrophic breakdowns in people’s lives, which end up creating huge costs for local authorities, the NHS and the government.”

Funding cuts have already affected some local services. A busy Citizens’ Advice outreach post was closed at Thurnscoe recently when the funding stream ran out.

Janet Wheatley CEO of Voluntary Action Rotherham said: “The changes to legal aid will have a huge impact on vulnerable people at a time when there is greatest change to the benefits system since the advent of the welfare state.”

She continued: “Advice agencies and the financial inclusion team, which VAR supports, expect to experience excessive demand for advice and information. We need to maintain services so organisations can continue to provide the vital support that individuals and families need.”

Mr Healey said the government should be targeting the enormous costs of criminal legal aid – £1.2 billion – instead of cutting the much smaller social welfare advice budget (£0.2billion).

The Legal Aid Bill is due back in the Commons on April 17.