Legal aid cuts hit 60 advice jobs and 'vulnerable' in Wales
- 16 February 2013
- From the section Wales
At least 60 jobs in the advice sector across Wales will be lost because of changes to Legal Aid, BBC Wales has learned.
The changes mean thousands of people will no longer have access to free specialist advice for issues like debt and welfare benefits, family disputes and some housing problems.
The UK government says the changes will save more than £400m a year.
But critics claim the changes will hit the most vulnerable hardest.
Jackie Preston runs the Swansea Neath Port Talbot Citizens' Advice Bureau which gets a quarter of its funding from Legal Aid to provide help and representation covering welfare and debt for people on benefits or low incomes.
"For people that aren't able to manage their own affairs themselves, or if it's something quite complex in the terms of the law, then we have workers that are funded by the Legal Aid contract," she said.
"They assist people that are going to tribunal, help them to prepare evidence around welfare benefits.
"We also work to help people who are in multiple debt.
"We assist them to negotiate with their creditors."
But from April the funding for the work will largely disappear as the UK government cuts back on the categories of civil and family law that qualify for Legal Aid.
The changes will help reduce the overall £2bn bill for legal aid by about a fifth. A large part of the savings will be achieved by removing funding for a wide range of cases.
Lord McNally, minister for Legal Aid in the Ministry of Justice, said: "We have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, and while it's a vital part of our justice system the resources available are not limitless.
"We have had to make tough choices about how to prioritise spending on those most in need.
"The involvement of lawyers and courts to solve disputes should always be the last resort, rather than the first.
"Access to justice is not necessarily the same as access to a lawyer. "
The Ministry of Justice's own figures estimate that around 585,000 clients across Wales and England will be affected, losing some £240m in legal aid services.
In Wales that will mean the loss of at least 60 specialist advisor posts in Citizens' Advice Bureaux and other independent advice providers like Shelter Cymru which currently provide assistance in more than 18,000 cases a year, mostly in the field of welfare, debt and housing.
The Riverside Advice Centre in Cardiff receives half of its funding from legal aid contracts that are not being renewed. In April alone it will see 10 posts disappear.
Chief executive Barbara Kerridge is worried about the timing of the changes which she says comes as people's benefit is to be re-assessed as well as welfare rights funding being "cut drastically".
"There will be more demand, with less services, particularly for the vulnerable people who aren't able to help themselves," she said.
"We see a slide then into a lack of early intervention and prevention and people getting into debt and then maybe into homelessness and hospitalisation - particularly people with mental health difficulties."
Help in private family law cases which is mostly provided by private solicitors' firms will also be affected by the changes, except where domestic abuse is alleged.
Plaid Cymru MP and barrister Elfyn Llwyd, who sat on two committees examining the government's plans, is concerned the reforms may drive some solicitors' firms out of business.
"It will be a huge knock at a time when those practices are coming into difficult times with the slowdown in conveyancing and all the rest of it," he said.
"We will see the disappearance of many small firms. It's already beginning to happen.
"The likelihood is that - not so much in places like south east Wales, but in other parts of Wales - you will have advice deserts. And that concerns me greatly."
But Lord McNally said the Ministry of Justice is "confident" that its reforms will not mean people in Wales having further to travel to access legal aid services and that the Welsh government has been given extra funding to support the advice sector as it adapts to the system of funding.
The Welsh government has been conducting its own review of the advice sector since last summer.
A spokesperson said its report is due shortly and that it will be an "important factor in informing discussion" as to how the money it has received from the UK government will be used.
Eye on Wales, Sunday 17 February, 13:30 GMT, BBC Radio Wales