Posts Tagged 'austerity'

The importance of the advice sector in the context of legal aid cuts

Originally published by PolicyBristol on the 19th June 2017.

Dr. Sarah Moore

The PolicyBristol blog has the pleasure of welcoming this guest post by Dr Sarah Moore, who was one of the participants in the recent book launch of Advising in Austerity. Reflections on challenging times for advice agencies (Policy Press, 2017). Dr Moore is also the co-author of Legal aid in crisis. Assessing the impact of reform (Policy Press, 2017) and offers here her insightful views on the need to boost the activities and funding of the legal advice sector.

Anyone familiar with legal aid reform will know that the Legal Aid and Sentencing of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) has dramatically altered the meaning and nature of legal aid. It has meant, amongst other things, a significant reduction in funding, largely achieved by taking a large number of areas of civil law out of scope, including private family law cases, and almost all cases involving social welfare, housing, medical negligence, immigration, debt, and employment.

The most strenuous critics of LASPO have pointed out that the recent funding cuts restrict people’s access to justice. In answering to these problems, LASPO incorporated a set of exceptions. Those who could provide evidence that they had been victims of domestic violence, for example, were to be given access to legal aid to pursue family law cases. And an Exceptional Case Funding caveat was incorporated in the Act for those who could successfully make a case that their human rights would be breached without publicly-funded legal assistance. Both have been woefully inadequate.

Research led by Rights of Women indicates that, even after the government relaxed the rules on domestic violence evidence and legal aid eligibility, a significant proportion of female victims (38% in their 2014 survey) did not have the mandatory evidence to receive publically-funded support. And the Exceptional Case Funding (ECF) scheme has been a disaster by anyone’s standards. In the first year post-LASPO, the Legal Aid Agency received only 1,520 applications for ECF. According to the Public Accounts Committee, only 69 were granted funding. That is far, far fewer than the Ministry of Justice and Legal Aid Agency had predicted in the post-LASPO period. Applications have picked up in the last year, as has the acceptance rate, but the fact remains that this safety net is sorely under-used.

Assessing the impact of LASPO

In assessing the impact of LASPO, academics and policy-makers have tended to focus on the impact of reform on the courtroom and litigation. There is certainly much to talk about here. Funding for civil representation and litigation now stands at about two-thirds of its pre-LASPO level, and this has led, amongst other things, to a steep rise in people representing themselves in the courtroom, so-called litigants in person.

All this has been well-documented, not least of all by Trinder et al’s (2014) excellent review of the difficulties faced by litigants in person in family law courts. What has received less attention is the steep decrease in funding for legal advice, with government funding for this form of support now at around one third of its pre-LASPO level. That is a staggeringly sharp decline in a four year period, one that even took the Legal Aid Agency and Ministry of Justice by surprise. This cut to funding has led to a radical change in the landscape of legal advice by prompting the closure of Law Centres, solicitors’ firms where legal aid was previously bread-and-butter work, and, of course, organisations in the advice sector.

The role of the advice sector post-LASPO

What does all this mean for the advice sector, and how might we start to think about the distinctive value of these organisations in a post-LASPO world? For one thing, the steep decline in state funding for legal advice has had the dual-effect of decreasing advice agencies’ budgets and increasing the unmet need for sources of support. And, as mentioned earlier, legal advice has been particularly hit by the cuts, making need for this support especially acute. It is therefore no surprise that, post-LASPO, the advice sector has played a crucial role in plugging the gap in legal support, even whilst it has undergone its own funding struggles.

The value of the advice sector post-LASPO also lies in its role in signposting people to exceptional case funding and, where capacity allows, supporting people in making applications. If LASPO’s exceptions and special provisions are to work, there needs to be support for people to make an application — people, it bears repeating, who are particularly vulnerable and ill-equipped for legal dispute. This lack of support is the principle reason for the failure of the Exceptional Case Funding caveat, and, as a set of organisations that tend already to have contact with the most vulnerable members of our society, the advice sector is potentially key to improving the take-up of this funding and thereby providing access to justice.

Lastly, the advice sector has a valuable role to play in improving public knowledge about eligibility rules for legal aid. Year on year post-LASPO, there has been a drop in casework for civil legal aid work. That downward spiral is not due to a decline in need. It reflects, amongst other things, the public’s understandable confusion about eligibility, and the presumption that legal aid no longer exists — that, at least, is the explanation offered by the House of Commons Justice Committee. And, again, as the advice sector necessarily plays a key role here in informing the public about what is available.

Advice as access to justice

The advice sector can play a really important role, then, in mitigating the effect of LASPO and making real its promise to offer a safety net. It can only do that with proper funding and support, and that requires a major shift in public debate so that the role of advice in ensuring access to justice is recognised. Herein lies a major challenge for the advice sector. Advising people on legal matters (or matters that have a legal dimension) is crucial work; it is also poorly-understood (in academic and policy terms) and relatively neglected in mainstream media coverage of legal aid cuts. This is despite the fact that public need for advice is growing as we enter a seventh year of ‘austerity’.

As we restrict people’s access to state services and welfare, people’s legal needs become more multifaceted and interwoven with social and psychological problems, as the accounts in Advising in Austerity (Kirwan, 2017) so neatly illustrate. The young woman seeking advice on an illegal eviction may also be managing a cut to her benefits, her employment may have become more erratic, and the public services in her local area may have deteriorated. This is what austerity means ‘in the round’, and it is just such a holistic conception of need that the advice sector is well-able to attend to, with its distinctive ability to provide advice on legal matters and information about broader social services. And, of course, in doing this important work, advice agencies do more than simply fill an information gap; they help explain official rules and decisions, often to people who are especially prone to feeling like they’ve been left behind and let down by social authorities. This, too, is what access to justice looks like. Making this case is all the more important in a post-LASPO era.

This blog post was first published in the Bristol Law School blog.

Legal aid in crisis [FC]Legal aid in crisis by Sarah Moore and Alex Newbury is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for £10.39

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Of and for society: Thinking the prosocial

What would it take to make society better? Rowland Atkinson, Lisa McKenzie and Simon Winlow, co-editors of the new book Building better societies, discuss some of the obstacles we face in trying to improve society. 

Rowland Atkinson

Lisa McKenzie

Simon Winlow

Social researchers spend so much time investigating the problems of inequality, crime, poverty and ill-health that they rarely have time to step outside these painful realities to engage in the kinds of utopian, creative and counter-intuitive thinking that can change entire academic fields.

We are encouraged, more than ever before, to be ‘policy relevant’, and the space and time needed to identify new and imaginative routes forward is diminishing with every passing year.

Many of us act in ways that are self-disciplining, if not self-defeating. We make careful pre-judgements about who will listen to us, and this often prevents us from making proposals or running ideas that might make the world – dare we say it – a better place. Given the sheer scale of the problems we face today – unparalleled inequality, ecological crisis and deep economic and political uncertainty – the role, and perhaps the duty, of social researchers is to draw on their evidence and intervene effectively in helping social conversations about the issues that really matter.

Continue reading ‘Of and for society: Thinking the prosocial’

Celebrating 25 years of the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice with a FREE anniversary article collection

In celebration of the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice’s 25th anniversary, editors Rod Hick and Gill Main reflect on the achievements of the journal and release a selection of articles free to download for the remainder of 2017. 

Rod Hick

Gill Main

This April marked the 25th anniversary of the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice.

Since its inception in the early 1990s, the academic, policy and practice communities have seen drastic changes – but the issues addressed by the journal have remained all too relevant.

Poverty and social justice remain at the forefront of academic and policy debate – both nationally and internationally.

Over the last decade, the global financial crisis has raised major debates about the nature of poverty and social justice. Many governments continue to pursue austerity agendas which have produced rising poverty rates, and to promote interpretations of social justice which are often in conflict with academic approaches.

Continue reading ‘Celebrating 25 years of the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice with a FREE anniversary article collection’

Advising in Austerity

Originally published on the Policy Bristol blog on 26 April 2017.

Ben Crawford

Professor Morag McDermont

Research led by Prof Morag McDermont of University of Bristol Law School has explored the ways in which advice organisations such as Citizens Advice (CA) have become key actors in legal arenas, particularly for citizens who face the most disadvantage in upholding their rights.

Findings from a four year study in partnership with Strathclyde University, highlight the importance of free-to-access advice in enabling people to tackle problems and engage with the legal and regulatory frameworks that govern their lives.

The advice sector, however, is under threat, as a new book Advising in Austerity: Reflections on challenging times for advice agencies (edited by Samuel Kirwan and published by Policy Press ) demonstrates. The book, co-written by the research team and advisers in the field, highlights both the possibilities and the challenges for an advice sector that largely relies on volunteers to provide a vital interface between citizens and the everyday problems of debt, health, employment and much more.

Continue reading ‘Advising in Austerity’

The truth about benefits sanctions

300,000 people have had their benefits suddenly stopped by sanctions in the last 12 months, many of whom have been plunged into poverty, unable to heat their homes or even eat.

On today’s National Day of Action Against Sanctions, Ruth Patrick highlights the reality of welfare reform as laid out in her new book, For whose benefit? The truth is that our punitive welfare reform agenda leaves people further away rather than closer to the paid labour market.

DSC_1268

Ruth Patrick

“While Cameron and Osborne may no longer be in charge, their welfare reform agenda continues apace. This month sees the implementation of another wave of reforms, which will further weaken Britain’s social security system.

Over recent years, politicians have robustly defended successive rounds of welfare reform. They argue that reform is needed to end supposed cultures of ‘welfare dependency’ and prevent people from being able to ‘choose’ benefits as a ‘lifestyle choice’. In making their case, politicians draw upon simplistic but powerful demarcations between ‘hard working families’ and ‘welfare dependants’, and suggest that welfare reform will help those on out-of-work benefits join the ranks of the hard working majority.

As David Cameron put it back in 2014:

“Our long-term economic plan for Britain is not just about doing what we can afford, it is also about doing what is right. Nowhere is that more true than in welfare. For me the moral case for welfare reform is every bit as important as making the numbers add up: building a country where people aren’t trapped in a cycle of dependency but are able to get on, stand on their own two feet and build a better life for themselves and their family.”

But does Cameron’s moral case stand up? And has welfare reform actually helped people make transitions from ‘welfare’ and into work?

Continue reading ‘The truth about benefits sanctions’

The welfare myth of them and us

Read the complete preface to the second edition of John Hill’s influential Good times, bad times below. This ground-breaking book uses extensive research and survey evidence to challenge the myth that the population divides into those who benefit from the welfare state and those who pay into it – ‘skivers’ and ‘strivers’, ‘them’ and ‘us’. 

John Hills (small)

John Hills

Good times, bad times was completed in 2014. A great deal has happened in UK politics and policy since then, not least the election of a majority Conservative government led by David Cameron in May 2015, the result of the referendum in June 2016 for Britain to leave the European Union, and the subsequent appointment of Theresa May as Prime Minister in July 2016.

Through all of this, the issues discussed in this book have remained central. One of its themes is the way that our lives are ever-changing.

Sometimes this is simply because we get older, we form – and dissolve – marriages and other partnerships, children are born, and they leave home.

But it is also because we move in and out of work, change and lose jobs, and what comes in from work and other sources can change not just from year to- year with our careers, but also from month-to-month, or even day-to-day, in ways highlighted by the spread of ‘zero hours contracts’.

Our needs – for education and for health and social care – change as we grow older, but also with the fluctuations in our state of health.

“Much popular debate assumes that people’s lives are unchanging.”

Continue reading ‘The welfare myth of them and us’

Free extract: How austerity has been biting the UK since 2010

In light of the media surprise at George Osborne’s 2016 botched Budget and Ian Duncan Smith’s sudden bout of conscience we thought we’d treat you to some tasty extracts from Mary O’Hara’s book Austerity Bites.

 Chronicling the true impact of austerity as it has been felt in the UK since its inception in 2010 and calling the government to account for the pain inflicted on society’s most vulnerable, Austerity Bites reveals that the wounds of austerity have been visible for quite some time…

Mary O'Hara

Mary O’Hara

In February 2015 Tory Party grandees believed it was acceptable to hold a Black and White Ball fundraiser with tables going for £15,000 a time and to have among the items being auctioned bound copies of George Osborne’s Budgets, including the first ‘Emergency Budget’ that ushered in austerity.

While the average British citizen has been living in ever-more precarious circumstances and paying through the nose for bankers’ malfeasance the rich can rest assured that they won’t have to pay their fair share. This is the situation almost five years into Austerity UK.

This Tory and the previous coalition government have presided over manifold cases of people so crushed by the brutish, punitive changes to the welfare system, including the inexplicable ‘Bedroom Tax’, and sanctions that many have gone without food, resorted to begging or taken up ‘survival shoplifting’ after their meagre benefits support has been withdrawn. People are suicidal.

Despair

The government has driven innumerable disabled people to despair with its spectacularly inappropriate and mismanaged ‘back-to-work’ programmes that are still plagued by criticisms of callousness and ineptitude. Continue reading ‘Free extract: How austerity has been biting the UK since 2010’


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