Big Society brings little aid

Jon Robins investigates what the cuts will mean for the vital advice that Citizens Advice Bureaux provide

May 22, 2011
7 min read


Jon RobinsJon Robins is a freelance journalist and editor of www.thejusticegap.com

Bolton Citizens Advice Bureau is on the frontline of the credit crunch. During the past year, its advisers helped 14,000 people. It is one of the larger in the network of 394 bureaux, which last year advised 2.1 million people nationwide.

A sense of their diversity can be obtained from one random day in January, when 63 people were advised at Bolton. According to the notes made by advisers, they included: a family with two children under the age of four years old who lost their benefits (‘haven’t been able to afford to feed themselves’); a 24-year-old father of two, refused paternity leave and threatened with the sack after his partner suffered a stillbirth with no one to look after the children (partner is ‘currently unable to do so due to pregnancy-related health problems’); an asylum seeker with two children (‘no food and nowhere for her or her children to sleep’); and a young mum, 21 weeks pregnant, who, with her partner, was struggling to pay bills and was ‘very concerned about the baby’s health. Is there anything else they can claim or do?’

Citizens Advice runs on a volunteer army. Of its 28,500 workers, 21,500 are volunteers. It is ‘an absolutely vital part of the “big society”’, David Cameron has said. Yet his government’s proposals will ‘decimate’ Bolton CAB, reckons chief executive Barry Lyons. According to Citizens Advice, more than half of the bureaux it surveyed reckon that the government’s plans ‘pose a real risk’ to their continued operation.

Bolton is an illustration of what’s happening. Two-thirds of its income comes from legal aid. Ministers look determined to slash the £2.1 billion legal aid scheme by £350 million. They are currently consulting on their green paper. Many of the cuts (£279 million) are directed at civil and family advice. This represents a 50 per cent cut in civil legal aid services to the public. And it’s not just legal aid funding that Bolton CAB stands to lose. It has been told to expect a significant cut in its local authority funding (another 15 per cent of its income).

Two-thirds of Bolton CAB’s clients are there because they have debt or welfare benefits problems. Ministers want such cases to be removed from legal aid, dismissing them as ‘generally not of sufficiently high importance to warrant funding’. That shows a shocking disregard for legal aid’s demographic. According to the government’s own impact assessment, legal aid recipients are ‘amongst the most disadvantaged in society … 97 per cent of legal aid recipients were in the bottom two income quintiles with almost 80 per cent in the bottom.’

According to Bolton CAB, out of the 63 people it saw on that one day in January, around ten might receive help if the government’s proposals go ahead. This column is about the experiences of some of the ordinary people who will be affected by that decision.

When I visited Bolton earlier this year, I met ‘Joe’, a 48-year-old former roofer who arrived, as many do, with a shopping bag full of unopened correspondence. ‘I’m worried about the bailiffs,’ he told debt adviser Tracey. His debts – a court fine for unpaid car insurance (£415), an outstanding TV licence payment (£94) – totalled less than £1,000, but they were causing him huge anxiety. He had been in hospital at the weekend having suffered a second heart attack. Eight months previously, a shoulder injury stopped him from working. He was diagnosed with depression, put on medication, signed off sick and in October had his first heart attack. He was right to be anxious. Both the court fine and TV licence are ‘priority debts’ and, as Tracey explained: ‘Creditors don’t tend to mess around.’

Don’t panic, Tracey assured Joe. In less than 20 minutes she sorted out the fine repayment and reinstated a lapsed TV licensing payment scheme over the phone. Joe’s relief was obvious. ‘It’s the stress. The littlest thing just becomes the biggest thing when you feel like this.’ How did it feel to have these problems sorted out? ‘It couldn’t be more important. I can’t afford anything. I can’t afford to pay for advice.’ Citizens Advice reckons that for every £1 that the state invests in its legal help scheme ‘the state potentially saves £8.80’.

Commons testimony

A couple of weeks after Bolton, I was at the House of Commons at an extraordinary event organised by the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and the Young Legal Aid Lawyers and chaired by Michael Mansfield. A series of ordinary people, as well as expert witnesses, gave ‘testimony’ before a distinguished panel of non-lawyers on the value of publicly-funded law.

A woman (‘EP’) told the panel – former Lib Dem MP Evan Harris, the canon of Westminster Abbey, the reverend professor Nicholas Sagovsky and Diana Holland of Unite – how her life and that of her partner and father of their child spiralled out of control as abuse and addiction took grip.

‘Over the next year things were awful. Child protection was working with me and my husband but, because of his drug addiction and my alcohol addiction, we were getting worse. I was so miserable,’ she said. Her husband was a City banker and enjoyed ‘quite a party lifestyle’, complete with a cocaine habit by the time they married in 2002.

He was (in her words) ‘older, very domineering and controlling’ and she was ‘naïve’. EP became withdrawn, spending all her time with their baby daughter. She began to drink heavily. ‘I was just giving up on life. I did not have the energy or the will to try and sort myself out.’

As the marriage fell apart, there was violence on both sides and the police were called. Social services became involved and proceedings to take their daughter into care began. At this point EP realised she need to escape an abusive relationship and approached solicitors. Did she have the money to pay for legal advice? asked Rev Sagovsky. ‘No,’ EP replied. ‘My husband had control of our finances.’

It was one of three testimonies dealing with relationship breakdown. This is significant because ministers propose in its green paper to scrap legal aid for family cases. Ministers insist it will be retained where there is domestic violence. However, there’s a catch. The definition in the green paper is ‘ongoing risk of physical harm’ – and even then it only applies in prescribed circumstances, such as where there is a protective order. As the support group Rights of Women points out, ‘Psychological, financial and emotional abuse are all serious forms of “domestic violence” that can have devastating long-term consequences.’

EP wouldn’t have received legal aid under the government’s proposals. What would that have meant? ‘I probably would have lost both my children and may well still have been an alcoholic and in a violent relationship,’ she said.

As it is, EP hasn’t had a drink for three years, while her husband sorted himself and now lives in Singapore. The couple have ‘an amicable relationship for the sake of the children’.

Both EP and Joe were the lucky beneficiaries of state‑supported advice which, if the government pushes on with its cuts, will be a thing of the past. The justice gap is about to get a lot wider.


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