Big cut to small bill for legal advice threatens needy

Sheffield Law Centre......Pictured is Douglas Johnson, Equality Rights Worker
Sheffield Law Centre......Pictured is Douglas Johnson, Equality Rights Worker
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IT makes up just 3.7 per cent of the total Legal Aid bill - but Sheffield campaigners say plans to slash 77 per cent of funding for free social welfare advice will have a devastating impact on people in need.

Six advice centres in the city are facing a huge drop in income if Government plans come into force next year.

Sharrow and Pitsmoor CABs and advice centres at Heeley, Foxhill and Castle all offer legal help covering benefits, debt and housing. Sheffield Law Centre also advises on employment law, immigration and discrimination.

Yet a poll by NOP for Justice for All - a coalition of charities and bodies including Sheffield City Council - shows just six per cent of the public are in favour of abolishing free advice.

The cuts are contained in the Legal Aid Bill which was this week rejected by the House of Lords and sent back to the Commons with a list of amendments.

But Douglas Johnson, of Sheffield Law Centre, said the Government appeared determined to drive the cuts through from March next year.

He said: “The vast majority of the £2.1bn-a-year Legal Aid bill pays for commercial lawyers on criminal cases. The not-for-profit sector working on social welfare cases costs just £78m-a-year. Yet it plays a massive role in preventing problems before they snowball.”

Sorting out a housing benefit claim could stave off eviction. Eviction could result in emergency accommodation for someone, or leave them suicidal. And there was a clear link between unresolved debt problems and domestic violence - an issue which often involved the police and child protection social workers, he added.

The Law Centre gets half of its funding from Legal Aid, a 77 per cent cut could make it “unsustainable.”

Douglas added: “Legal Aid is a safety net for the most vulnerable. It is there to help people through the hard times, whether it’s getting contact with their kids or employment or debt advice when they lose their jobs. The Government’s cuts will hit us all but particularly women, minorities and the disabled who are most likely to need free help.”