The sheer volume of people going without access to legal aid is horrendous
Ruth Hayes of Unite the Union, which represents workers across the justice system, spoke at Runnymede at the #RelayForRights on Saturday 21 February saying that her members see daily the impact of cuts to legal aid.
She works closely with Not For Profit organisations such as Citizens’ Advice Bureau, Law Centres, independent Advice Agencies across London and Easton and states:
- Cuts brought in under the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act mean that people who get denied benefits, people who are sometimes living for three months with no income at all, have no right to legal aid to help them challenge that, even where it is evidently an error of law.
- In employment law unless there is discrimination, employers are able to dismiss people, knowing that individuals will not be able to get legal aid.
- There has been a reduction in advice for disrepair in housing that has a huge impact on the quality of people’s lives.
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She states that the cuts to immigration are particularly horrendous in the impact they are having. “We see young people, who think they are British, their school thinks they are British, they then cannot go to University because it turns out their status was not regularised. We have a client who has worked in this country all his adult life, he arrived in the UK as a child, he has paid tax and NI. Recently he developed a health problem. He can no longer claim benefits because he lost his original passport. Attempting to show that he is in fact living here legally is very difficult”.
Without legal aid these cases are incredibly difficult to take.
Ruth Hayes states that she has worked in the sector for over ten years and that “the level of destitution we are seeing amongst people now is really frightening. We are constantly having to find ways to meet the very basic needs of people, when there should be provision through the welfare state.”
Those who cannot access legal aid face onerous and near impossible requirements. These cases are hard enough when you work in an office with phones with credit on them, photocopiers and access to email. Imagine you are living in temporary accommodation and have no income, how can you provide the evidence required of you and fight a case successfully.
Hayes said that whilst those in Parliament frequently say all is fine and people can go to their local Citizens Advice Bureau or Law Centre the reality is that many of those agencies were funded through legal aid. Many services have now gone, specialist roles have disappeared, skills and expertise are being lost.
Hayes says that the cuts even in their own terms are not effective. The National Audit Office report shows that a lot of what has been saved is just pushing costs elsewhere.
“We used to get paid less than £175 for dealing with a housing benefit case. We can’t do a housing benefit cases under legal aid anymore, but the people still appear in court, they get an adjournment, they come back the next week and their housing benefit issue has not been resolved. That is absurd. There is a real hidden cost to other providers, particularly Local Authorities and the National Health Service of unmet legal need, which was actually very cheap.”
Shes says that the cuts to legal aid have not happened in a vacuum and thousands are suffering due to welfare reform, barriers to access to employment tribunals and terrible quality of housing stock, offered at enormous rents.
“We know that landlords are offering for rent at enormous prices terrible terrible quality accommodation and that is not being challenged because people do not get access to legal aid.”
In stating why she has joined the protest Hayes states
We are here because we want to see the law apply equally to everybody rich and poor, and to bring back a proper system of legal aid.