Tom Brake MP writes…Complex benefit cases must be brought back within the scope of legal aid

There is a political consensus around the need to reform Legal Aid. Indeed Labour oversaw thirty reviews and consultations on the subject whilst in power.

The UK’s legal aid spend is one of the highest in the world, with many cases coming before the courts which do not necessarily require legal expertise to resolve.

The coalition government’s aim to deliver savings of £350 million from the annual Legal Aid budget by 2015 amounts to a relatively modest saving of 17% against the £2 billion per annum Legal Aid bill, and many of the measures proposed relate to efficiency rather than a reduction in the availability of Legal Aid.

I am pleased that there will be a renewed emphasis on alternative conciliation remedies, such as mediation. However, during the progress of the Bill through Parliament, my Liberal Democrat colleagues and I have pressed for changes to ensure that legal aid and legal advice is still available for the most vulnerable claimants.

In particular, I want to see complex benefit cases bought back within the scope of legal aid. The Government has argued that legal aid should not be funding advice on issues of benefit entitlement, as accurate information and support on entitlement should be delivered via Department of Work and Pension (DWP) agencies.

Although I agree with this in general, I believe that the situation is different with reviews and appeals. There is a high level of decision-making error within the DWP in applying the law correctly and the resulting issues, which often end up before the social entitlement tribunal, can be extremely complex and involve interpretation of complex statute and case-law precedents.

People without specialist welfare benefits knowledge will struggle to put together coherent review requests or appeals with no legal input at all from independent specialist welfare rights advisors. Nor can agencies, such as the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), deliver advice at this level without funding for specialist legal caseworker posts.

Ensuring the sick and disabled are provided with the support necessary to navigate our incredibly complex benefit system is not only morally right, but cost effective. Without adequate legal advice, people will be forced to represent themselves – which will only add to the cost and pressures placed on the Tribunal system.

Keeping legal aid for complex welfare cases will help about 100,000 at a cost of £150 per case. This would reduce the current spending on legal aid for welfare benefits cases by about £8.5m per year. Put simply, keeping legal aid for the most complex welfare cases will reduce the current bill for legal aid, whilst protecting advice for the most vulnerable. That is why I am calling upon the Government to do the right thing, the cost effective thing, and bring complex benefit cases back within scope of legal aid.

* Tom Brake was the Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton and Wallington from 1997 to 2019.

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5 Comments

  • James Sandbach 16th Apr '12 - 5:09pm

    Well done Tom – it is a difficult stand to take when Ministry of Justice thinking has become so entrenched that benefit appeals are easy so don’t merit legal aid, but if you win this the Party will have done something very positive for the most vulnerable in society. Dee Doocey has made much the same point..
    https://www.libdemvoice.org/baroness-dee-doocey-writes-legal-aid-and-welfare-reform-spot-the-problem-27446.html

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 16th Apr '12 - 7:46pm

    “The UK’s legal aid spend is one of the highest in the world, with many cases coming before the courts which do not necessarily require legal expertise to resolve. ”

    That is a bit of a myth. Other countries spend greater sums on Public Defender systems as an alternative to legal aid and some other countries have inquisitorial systems (rather than our adversarial system) where more public money is spent on an investigative magistrates rather than a defence lawyer.

    But Tom’s main point is a good one. Legal aid saves money.

    In a criminal context, a legal aid funded lawyer who keeps one wrongly accused person out of jail by making sure their case is put properly saves more money for the public than they cost.

  • Richard Dean 16th Apr '12 - 8:23pm

    Would it be possible for someone to give some examples of “complex” benefit cases? Thanks in advance!

    Presumably a complementary appoach would to simplify the rules for benefits?

    It seems unlikely that parliament will have intended that complex issues arise out of these rules – so what “complex case” suggests to me (and yes, I am ignorant) is that the case may be a claim for something or some situation that parliament may not have been thinking about when they made the rules.

  • If the government wants to cut the legal aid bill in conjunction with welfare advice and tribunals then maybe they should re haul the benefit making decision process.

    The government should set themselves a target which must be implemented before legal aid could be withdrawn from this area, for example, once wrong decision makings have been reduced to say 5% (margin for error) and the DWP decision making process is working properly and fairly, there would not be the high demand and need for legal aid in this area.

    Of course, one could argue that, once decision making errors have fallen to 5%, the overall cost of providing legal aid to this department would have fallen dramatically and there would be no need to cut funding in the first place.

    But the reality is, governments love to waste money, make mistakes. hand out multi million contracts to idiots who are neither competent or morally grounded, and make the lives of those most unfortunate and at the bottom of the rung that little bit more miserable and difficult.

  • well said, Tom Brake. I hope it is not too late for any of what he says to happen. I’ve been away for most of the week, but been watching the debate in H of C and I despair. The Minister keeps talking about welfare benefit cases being dealt with in lawyers offices – I doubt many are, most being in advice agencies. Does he really know what he is talking about. As for phone advice, it may well be better for some, but as Adrain Sanders and Simon Hughes said – they could cope with it, but what about people with lots of difficulties using the phone, and a lot of people seeking advice are doing so as they may not have expressed the issue or their problem in the way the officials have understood.
    For every bad decision made by DWP they should pay a penalty into the CAB, and then look at how to save money! if they got their decisions right in the first place there would be no need for so much legally aidble advice.

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