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New report: MPs will struggle to help constituents after legal aid changes

A new report has found that MPs are likely to find it increasingly difficult to help resolve their constituents’ problems next year when the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (known as the Legal Aid Bill) comes into force.

Over the last year, members of Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) have visited MPs’ surgeries to interview MPs, their caseworkers and constituents to produce a snapshot of the current situation.

The results make for interesting reading. They suggest that if the Legal Aid Bill goes through, constituents will turn increasingly to their MPs for help with legal problems such as welfare benefits appeals and immigration issues. As MPs do not have the resources to deal with increasing numbers of legal cases, they are likely to struggle to effectively deal with their constituents’ problems.

YLAL’s report, entitled, ‘Nowhere else to turn’ shows that MPs already spend a significant amount of their time dealing with their constituents’ legal problems. A third of the MPs estimated that they spend between half and three-quarters of their time dealing with constituents’ cases and the results showed that over a third of the MPs’ casework during the preceding six months had involved legal issues.

Currently, MPs are able to refer many of their cases onto legal advice organisations and law firms in cases where specialist, expert advice is required. Indeed, they are heavily reliant on such services.

In the six months leading up to the study, 71.1% of MPs had needed to refer constituents to a legal adviser. It is feared that MPs' constituency offices will become inundated with requests for advice from people who have lost out on publicly-funded legal guidance and that they just won’t be able to effectively deal with the increase in numbers.

This is for two main reasons.

Firstly, local advice services are already strained due to a lack of funding and this will only be exacerbated once the cuts contained in the Legal Aid Bill come into force. Law Centres, Citizens Advice Bureaux and other independent community advice agencies are already facing cuts from all angles and many rely heavily on legal aid funding.

A recent report from Justice for All focusing on the government’s not-for-profit Advice Review found that many advice charities were facing closure
already.

Once these advice centres are gone, people will be forced to go to their MPs for help.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour MP for Islington North described the situation in his constituency, saying that legal aid organisations were already closing down.

“My staff already deal with around 2000 cases a year,” he said. “We’re going to get a lot more and the pressures are going to get greater. We haven’t got the resources to cope with it any more than any other MP has.”

Secondly, if the Legal Aid Bill goes through Parliament unchanged, then many of the issues that people go to see their MP for help with will no longer receive legal aid.

The YLAL report suggests that 56.2% of the problems regularly raised by constituents to their MPs will not receive funding once the Legal Aid Bill is enacted. Without publicly-funded advice and assistance, many people will find they have little choice but to turn to their MPs for help and guidance.

With this likely increase in workload, MPs will struggle to effectively help their constituents. The YLAL study shows that a lot of MPs provide basic help with legal problems, but many simply do not have the expertise or resources to deal with complex legal issues within the constituency office. This would mean that many problems would go unresolved.

YLAL members have previously written for this blog about the false economy of the cuts to legal aid, but the impact on MPs’ ability to help their constituents has, until now, been overlooked. During the Bill’s passage through Parliament, the House of Lords has spoken out strongly against the cuts and many amendments have been made that would help reduce some of the worst aspects of the cuts.

However, there is speculation that when the Bill returns to the Commons after the Easter break MPs will overturn these amendments by citing financial privilege, as we saw with the Welfare Reform Bill. This new report adds weight to the calls to government to think again on its legal aid reforms. It also serves as a wake-up call to MPs who, frankly, do not know what is about to hit them should the legal aid cuts go through.

By Nadia Salam and Katie Tiley of Young Legal Aid Lawyers.

See the False Economy legal aid advertisement for MPs.

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