The extent to which savage government cuts have deprived disabled people of legal aid in disputes over their benefit payments is revealed today by new official figures that show a 99% decline since 2011.
The total number of disabled people granted legal aid in welfare cases has plummeted from 29,801 in 2011-12 to just 308 in 2016-17, cutting some of the most vulnerable people in society adrift without expert advice in often highly complex and distressing cases.
MPs and charities representing disabled people reacted furiously to the figures, released in a parliamentary answer, saying they bore out their worst fears at the time ministers announced the cuts several years ago.
They called on the government to speed up an ongoing review of the legal aid system and to end a Whitehall culture that, they say, too often views disabled people as easy targets for savings.
Drastic cuts to the £2bn legal aid budget were imposed in 2013 as part of the Tory austerity drive championed by former chancellor George Osborne. The 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act removed more than £350m from the legal aid budget and ended the right to legal representation in many benefits cases, as well as others concerning divorce, child custody, clinical negligence, employment, immigration and housing.
The Labour MP Gloria de Piero, who raised the issue with ministers, said the Conservatives insisted when their austerity programme was announced that the cuts would not hit the most needy. “The staggering fall in the numbers of disabled people challenging, if they believe their benefits have been wrongly removed, shows just how many vulnerable people are now denied access to justice because of the government’s cruel legal aid cuts,” she said.
Richard Lane, head of communications at disability charity Scope, called the figures “shocking”. He said they were proof that disabled people were now in “a weaker position to challenge inaccuracy and poor decision-making within government welfare systems”.
Gill Coddington, a former civil servant and benefits expert who works at Scope’s helpline, offering guidance on how people can manage claims, said that of about 23,000 calls to the helpline every year, two-thirds related to issues to do with benefits. She said the cuts to legal aid meant that now only a tiny number – those whose cases reached the very highest tribunals – were granted help.
“The work we do can be very distressing,” she said. “Combined with the administrative changes, and changes to the assessment culture, they have helped contribute to a demonisation of disabled people. Many who call our helpline feel they have no one standing up for them any more. Until 2013, legal aid for welfare benefits offered disabled people proper access to justice that they no longer have.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson denied the government was depriving the most needy of help. “Maintaining access to justice remains at the heart of our legal aid system, and last year we spent over £1.6bn to ensure help is available for those who need it most,” the spokesperson said. “We are conducting an evidence-based review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, to assess the changes made against their objectives. We will publish our findings this year.”
Marsha de Cordova, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, who herself suffers from nystagmus – a condition that causes the involuntary movement of the eye – and is registered as blind, said the entire legal aid system had been “hollowed out”, with terrible results. “Thousands of disabled people are being denied access to justice. When over two-thirds of social security appeals are lost by the Department for Work and Pensions, it is crucial the government adequately funds legal aid to ensure disabled people can have access to justice.”
“A Labour government would introduce a social security system that is fair and fit for purpose, and ensure disabled people are supported and have full access to the judicial system.”
Kamran Mallick, chief executive officer of the charity Disability Rights UK, said: “The government was warned changes to access to legal aid would fall heavily on disabled people who need legal advice, and these figures show those concerns were real.
“Despite that, we’ve seen a massive rise in the number of people appealing disability benefit claims, and a huge increase in the number of successful appeals after people have been wrongly turned down. But our benefits system is complex to navigate, and more so since the raft of changes that have come in since 2012.”
He added: “Some people do need extra legal help and support, and if they don’t get it they may end up without benefits they’re entitled to.
“Access to justice is a fundamental human right as well as a sign of a civilised society. We’d urge the government to reverse the changes that are hitting disabled people so heavily.”
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