Baroness Dee Doocey writes: Legal Aid and Welfare Reform, spot the problem

As one of the Liberal Democrat peers engaged in the debate on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill as well as the recent Welfare Reform Bill debates, I am pushing today for a vital amendment which I hope will mitigate the worst aspects of cuts facing the legal aid system– something that is proving to be a controversial issue for the Party.

The coalition agreement committed to reforming legal aid to reduce its costs to the public purse; it did not commit to abolishing it for whole categories of law. Chief amongst these excluded categories in Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill is the removal of all social security law from the scope of civil legal aid – in other words the specialist level advice provided by Citizens Advice Bureaux, Law Centres and a small number of legal practitioners to clients dealing with problems that arise in claiming welfare benefits – such as challenging underpayments or the recovery of overpayments, poorly carried out Employment and Support Allowance assessments, or wrong decisions.

The benefits system is a hugely complex system of rules as anyone following the welfare reform debate will recognise – thirteen volumes of law or so, and whilst welfare reform will simplify administrative processes and amalgamate several benefits into one (the universal credit) it does not lessen it’s intrinsic complexity or bureaucracy. Indeed, such is the scale of systemic and legal change in the welfare reform programme with new protocols and Ministry guidelines on qualifying conditions, conditionality, rules on childcare, work hours, under-occupancy, and new discretions for local authorities which take over the social fund, that we can expect another few volumes yet.

So my problem with what is happening with the changes to legal aid is that I fear there won’t be any mechanism left to hold DWP decision-making and processes to account. Where decisions are referred to review or appeal, everyone who works within the system regards it is as essential that claimants have access to expert advice such as that provided by the Citizen’s Advice Bureau. Welfare tribunals are intensely legalistic, review processes involve inordinately complex forms, and endless time and correspondence with DWP officials.

Welfare reform will also require every current benefit recipient to be re-assessed. So how can we expect claimants, many of whom have the lowest literacy levels, to negotiate the complex nature of welfare benefit law and to have the expertise needed to decipher almost 9,000 pages of guidance, let alone take a complaint as far as a tribunal? They will have major problems mounting an appeal because they will have no idea what to appeal against. But this is precisely what will happen if legal aid funding for benefit issues is withdrawn – a policy challenged at our last Party Conference. As a priority for protecting the most vulnerabl, my amendment seeks to put this right by at least retaining legal aid for the most complex cases.

* Dee Doocey is Liberal Democrat Tourism Spokesperson in the House of Lords.

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6 Comments

  • Good for you Dee. Shame our members of the Lords haven’t done more about the definition of domestic violence and taking most of family cases out of scope altogether. Vulnerable people (including many children) will be adversely affected by LASPO.

  • James Sandbach 7th Mar '12 - 2:24pm

    Right behind you Dee! Hope the other peers are too – if not they are literally asleep on the job!

  • Bill le Breton 7th Mar '12 - 4:38pm

    Good luck with this Dee. It is impossible to exaggerate just how difficult it is for very vulnerable people to work their way round the bureaucracies that administer welfare.

    The assistance they can get is getting almost as remote as the bureaucracies that they are dealing with. CAB resources have been cut. You might like to ask the question: how many CAB workers have been made redundant in the last 24 months?

    Kafka might have been able to describe the difficulties people now have to get advice from CAB but even he couldn’t have dreamt up some of the systems used to ‘deliver’ welfare rights advice at the County Council’.

  • James Sandbach 7th Mar '12 - 10:11pm

    I’m delighted that Dee’s amendment was carried comfortably in the House of Lords – congratulations on a lib dem win!

  • Great news! Well done.

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