Cuts to free legal aid have hit “squeezed middle” hardest

Legal aid cut protest 2013. Pic: Kevin Blowe

Legal aid cut protest 2013. Pic: Kevin Blowe

“Ordinary working people” are being hit hardest by cuts to legal aid, according to a Hackney law charity.

A rising number of people who are “too ‘rich’ to be eligible to receive legal aid and too ‘poor’ to afford a private high street lawyer” are seeking advice from free legal aid centres, the Hackney Community Law Centre told Eastlondonlines.

They said: “Those types of working people – ‘the squeezed middle’ – would not have approached a law centre for help before. Now they are approaching us frequently.”

Legal aid charities such as HCLC are coming under increasing pressure from cuts. Civil legal aid services have fallen by more than half since April 2013, when the legal aid reforms were enforced. The reforms were made in a bid to slash the £2 billion annual legal aid bill by £350 million a year.

Since September 2013, HCLC has recorded a 40 per cent increase in the number of people coming to them for free legal advice, meaning their lawyers now work on 3,000 cases a year.

Unlike other London borough councils, Hackney Council has provided extra funding to HCLC to boost staff numbers. However, the centre has still had to make staff cuts.

Miranda Grell, development officer for HCLC, said: “We are having to rely on the good will of volunteers – normally law students – and pro bono help from corporate law firms to help deliver and maintain services we would have had to cut without their help”.

Ashley Crompton, a teacher from Hackney and single father of three, is a former client of HCLC. “[Their lawyers] gave me such confidence that I was able to tackle the council”, he said.

Crompton went to court after Hackney Council attempted to reclaim money they had paid him through an administrative error. He won the case.

“I immediately felt a massive release of all sorts of things – the pressure, the stress – it just went. I could finally get on with my life again”, said Crompton.

Since the reforms were introduced, legal experts have expressed concern about the number of people able to apply for legal aid. Appearing at Goldsmiths College last year, Shami Chakrabati, Director of the Liberty council, said: “Cuts to legal aid mean vulnerable people can’t get access to justice in court.”

“People might lose their kids, families might get spilt up due to deportation and people who might need redress against the police or prison authority can’t get justice.”

“These are all people who are in the process of losing their right to legal aid. This is incredibly serious.”

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