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Can we afford social costs of legal aid cuts?

Relentless public sector cuts risk fuelling civil unrest at a far greater cost to society than the money saved, BASW’s Interim Chief Executive Bridget Robb cautioned.

The warning comes in the wake of fears expressed by the judiciary over plans to restrict free legal aid in England and Wales to save millions of pounds, as set out in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2010-12.

Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court and the highest judge in the land, claimed a reduction of £350 million in funding for civil cases from April could see people “take the law into their own hands”.

The Government also revealed further plans to consult on cuts in support for criminal cases, the biggest expenditure in the annual £2 billion legal aid bill.

Bridget Robb, BASW’s Interim Chief Executive, said: “Yet again Government cuts are hitting the most vulnerable and those most in need of support. We have concerns when an eminent judge warns that cuts to legal aid could result in people taking the law into their own hands.

“Ministers must take care that cutbacks are not relentlessly pursued at the expense of social cohesion, which ultimately is a bigger cost to society.

“We have already seen how frustrations can spill over into civil disruption with the summer riots of 2011. If cuts to legal aid fuel further disillusionment with mainstream institutions, we need to ask whether this is a price worth paying?”

Reforms to legal aid funding for civil cases will restrict access to state-paid solicitors in a range of areas such as social welfare, debt, employment disputes, family problems, clinical negligence, divorce and housing problems.

Funding will continue in family law cases involving domestic violence or forced marriag, as well as debt and housing issues where someone's home is at immediate risk.

However, speaking at the beginning of March, Lord Neuberger warned: “My worry is the removal of legal aid for people to get advice about law and get representation in court will start to undermine the rule of law because people will feel like the government isn't giving them access to justice in all sorts of cases.

"And that will either lead to frustration and lack of confidence in the system, or it will lead to people taking the law into their own hands."

The Government insists legal aid will still be provided to “those who most need it”.

Consultation on cuts to legal aid in criminal cases will begin in April.