Legal advice cuts will hit most vulnerable – MP

GOVERNMENT plans to cut funding for free legal advice have been slammed by a local MP.

It is feared 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.

Rotherham MPs John Healey, Kevin Barron and Denis MacShane recently met representatives from Rotherham’s advice agencies to discuss concerns about the impact of the government’s legal aid and welfare reforms on the town.

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.”

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.

“Thousands of people in Rotherham will experience a change to the benefits they receive and are not yet aware of these changes.

“Advice agencies and the financial inclusion team, which VAR supports, expect to experience excessive demand for advice and information.

“We need to maintain these services so that 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 – which are £1.2 billion – instead of cutting the much smaller social welfare advice budget (£0.2billion).

Advice is given by a mix of volunteers and legal experts and delivered primarily through Citizens Advice Bureaux and local law centres.

The Legal Aid Bill is due back in the Commons on 17 April. It has been defeated a historic 11 times in the House of Lords.