Cutting Legal Aid – Penny Wise Pound Foolish

17:07 Wednesday 29th June 2011
Drive BBC Radio Cambridgshire

PETER SWAN: Let’s kick off with Ken Clarke. The Justice Secretary has been defending his criminal justice agenda today, which includes proposed sentencing and legal aid changes. Under the plans, aimed at saving £300 million from the £2.1 billion legal aid bill, people will not be eligible for legal aid in a far broader range of civil cases than currently is the case. To discuss the implications, here’s Rachel Talbot from the Citizen’s Advice Bureau in Cambridge. Evening to you Rachel.
PETER SWAN: Now could you just fill us in on what the current situation is. What have we got at the moment, and what is it that Ken Clarke is looking to change?
RACHEL TALBOT: Well basically they’re looking at making savings, as they are with everything, and unfortunately, from CAB and other like-minded agencies’ points of view, the sort of funding that we get from the legal aid pot will almost completely disappear if his proposals go through. And that’s quite significant to us, because it basically funds all our specialist casework people. It’s about a quarter of our funding.
PETER SWAN: Can you give us some examples then of the sort of legal aid work that you do, and that might not be done in future?
RACHEL TALBOT: Yes, certainly. At Cambridge we’re contracted to deal with debt, complicated debt cases, welfare benefits, problems, particularly people who have complex benefit issues, and possibly have been turned down for benefits that they’re entitled to, and they need representation. And we also work on housing cases, and specialise in trying to prevent repossessions, and people becoming homeless.
PETER SWAN: And we’ve heard with repossessions, that obviously that saves the Government money ultimately if these cases can be worked out properly.
RACHEL TALBOT: Absolutely. We have a calculator off the Crisis website which indicates that every person that’s made homeless in Cambridge costs the local authority around about £25,000 a year.
PETER SWAN: Now Ken Clarke’s point of view is obviously that he feels that some of this legal aid is being wasted, is being used in cases where it’s just not necessary or not productive for the Government. What would you say to that?
RACHEL TALBOT: I think what he’s talking about are the sorts of cases that get the kind of big splash in the media. I think what we’re worried about is that they don’t understand the levels of funding that we get, that they’re just concentrating on this litigation that ends up costing masses of money. And what they’re missing is that the funding that we get is actually means-tested, ie it’s only for people on very very limited funding, and we have a fixed fee. So we can’t get paid any more than £200 maximum for any case that we take on. So it’s actually incredibly good value for money.
PETER SWAN: So the CAB is one place that gets legal aid. How else is it used then?
RACHEL TALBOT: Well there are solicitors who do certificated legal aid work, which is usually based on an hourly rate. And that might be for family law, or employment law, or something else along those lines. But basically what the Government is looking at is pretty much getting rid of what we call the social welfare side of legal aid.
PETER SWAN: How directly then would this affect the Cambridge CAB?
RACHEL TALBOT: It would be pretty devastating for us, because our whole specialist casework team is based around the legal aid contract, ie that undepins the funding for those paid workers.
PETER SWAN: So presumably you’d say the only benefit really from these proposals, from your point of view, that anyone’s going to get out of it,  is that the Government will save a bit of cash.
RACHEL TALBOT: They’ll save a tiny bit of cash, and we think that they don’t realise that it will also cost them more to cut off on it (?). It sounds a bit bizarre, but basically the sort of work that we do is negotiation and early intervention, so we’re trying to keep people away from litigation, and keep them away from the court, which is a very costly procedure. So by taking away that layer, our feeling is that more and more people will end up in more expensive activities, which will cost the Government and local authorities a lot more.
PETER SWAN: OK Rachel. Thanks for joining us on the show.
PETER SWAN: That’s Rachel Talbot from the Cambridge CAB.