Thousands of people in Hackney will lose out on free legal advice and representation due to government cuts, East London Lines has learned.
Over £950,000 in funding will be axed by coalition plans to slash the legal aid budget, making Hackney one of the worst-hit areas in the country.
Analysis by Legal Action Group (LAG), a charity that campaigns for access to justice, shows that the number of cases financed in the borough will plummet from 7,829 to 1,454 starting April 2013 – meaning that over 4,000 people in vulnerable situations could be left without any form of advice or representation for housing, employment, benefits and debt.
Bearing the brunt of the blow will be black and minority (BME) social groups, who make up more than half of the borough’s population. Along with women they will be disproportionately affected by the cuts according to the government’s own impact assessment of the reform.
Local not-for-profit providers of advice services have warned of the potential dire effects of the move at a time when more people are turning to their services due to the economic downturn, warning of increased evictions and homelessness.
Rashid Seedat, director of legal services at Hackney Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) told East London Lines:
“It will have a catastrophic effect on poor and vulnerable people. I don’t know where they will go.
“Since the beginning of the recession we have had a huge increase in the number of clients with debt problems and those who have been made redundant.”
Hackney CAB estimate that around 50% of their funding will disappear – equating to £200,000.
Meanwhile Hackney Community Law Centre (CLC), which has provided free specialist legal services for over 30 years, is set to lose two thirds of its budget, even though the centre says it is already stretched beyond capacity.
Nathaniel Mathews, senior solicitor at the centre, said:
“This is a very heavy blow. Cases are flooding through the door at the moment and we cannot meet demand.”
“I think we are going to see evictions go up. When I go to court as a duty solicitor most of the cases are over rent arrears. These could be resolved with early intervention – but it will only get worse by removing legal aid when people need it more”.
Although both centres receive funding from the council and other sources, there are now fears that they could be forced to close their doors unless the shortfall is bridged. While the government has given an indicative commitment to provide limited funds there are as of yet no concrete plans. Funding from other streams is increasingly scarce in the third sector, with more charities and voluntary organisations now chasing money from the same pots.
The Legal Aid Bill is currently waiting to reach the House of Lords and once on the statute books could come into effect by April 2013.
It contains the coalition’s strategy to shave £280m off the legal aid budget that it claims has ballooned in recent years, increasing 6% annually in real terms since 1997, with the bill now at £2.1bn a year.
The Ministry of Justice hopes the removal of most categories of civil law from the scope of legal aid will discourage expensive litigation paid for by the public purse while targeting legal aid to those most in need.
But while the government states the paring back of legal aid is necessary to help tackle the national budget deficit, critics argue that it will have the inverse effect by increasing public expenditure in other areas.
Rachid Seedat of Hackney CAB said:
“[These cuts] will impact on the local authority due to their duties to provide temporary accommodation to homeless people.
“A lot of the time we sort things before court, such as housing arrears and debt. The courts will be inundated because more people will end up there instead and they are worried about this.”
Campaigners have attacked the economic logic underpinning the government’s case by pointing to research by Citizens Advice which found that every £1 spent on housing advice can save the state up to £2.34, while the same amount on benefits help can make savings of up to £8.80.
Written by Michael Pooler