Citizens Advice adds its voice to criticism of Govt legal aid reforms

The Citizens Advice charity has slammed reforms to the legal aid system, claiming they will deny legal assistance to thousands of vulnerable people.

The organisation, which currently has 252 bureaux funded to provide legal aid advice, also claims that the reforms could lead to the closure of scores of its bureaux, particularly in deprived areas.

Alternatives proposed by the Government to the existing legal aid system include providing a fixed amount of funding to advisers for each case they handle.

But Citizens Advice warns that, without sufficiently taking account of the complexity and time-consuming nature of many cases, legal aid firms will ‘cherry pick’ easier work and leave more difficult cases for Citizens Advice.

In addition, it says that plans to pay agencies in arrears would mean charities subsidising publicly funded services, which would be impossible for its members.

Citizens Advice director of policy Teresa Perchard said: “Legal aid is essential to enable people on limited means to get access to justice. But the changes proposed by the Government’s proposed system will generally pay the same per case, regardless of whether it takes us one hour or eight to resolve.”

Perchard also warned that failure to include a London weighting for funding allocations would discourage legal aid lawyers from practising in the capital.

“We in the UK pride ourselves on our legal aid system, but there will be nothing to be proud of if the reforms ultimately mean vulnerable people are not helped simply because their problems are more complex,” she said.

More than 250 Citizens Advice Bureaux across England and Wales currently have legal aid contracts, employing nearly 590 specialist advisers. Through these contracts, the charity last year helped people deal with more than five and a half million problems.

The Citizens Advice complaints coincide with a Law Society special general meeting last week, at which 400 solicitors voted unanimously to resist the Government’s proposals, as first reported on (17 January).