A Labour government will restore legal aid for people appealing against cuts to benefits such as universal credit, the shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, is to announce.Those seeking to challenge decisions by the Department for Work and Pensions on welfare payments, many of which are incorrect, will be able to obtain legal advice to help…
A Labour government will restore legal aid for people appealing against cuts to benefits such as universal credit, the shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, is to announce.
Those seeking to challenge decisions by the Department for Work and Pensions on welfare payments, many of which are incorrect, will be able to obtain legal advice to help them pursue appeals, Labour is pledging.
Burgon argues that restoring such financial support would encourage the DWP to get decisions right first time, thereby reducing costs for the Ministry of Justice.
More than two-thirds of appeals against DWP decisions on personal independence payments (Pips) and employment support allowance (ESA) are successful, says Labour, adding that those decisions have affected thousands of vulnerable people with illnesses, disabilities or in poor health.
Since the coalition government’s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo) came into effect in early 2013, the number of people receiving legal aid to challenge benefit decisions has fallen by 99%. The MoJ spends more than £100m a year on tribunals disputing appeals against benefit decisions. In addition, the DWP has spent more than £100m on Pips and ESA reviews and appeals since October 2015.
The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, warned last month that cuts to legal aid meant many could no longer afford “to challenge benefit denials or reductions” and were “thus effectively deprived of their human right to a remedy”.
Since Laspo came into effect, many expert benefit lawyers have left the field because cases were no longer funded. The MoJ has experienced the deepest cuts of any Whitehall department since 2010; its budget is to shrink further over the next two years.
Burgon said: “People should never be expected to navigate a complex appeals process all by themselves. That can force some to give up their claim altogether after a wrong initial decision. Others endure months of stress trying to prepare their own case. It’s bad now but will be even more difficult after universal credit’s rollout.
“Cuts to early legal advice have been a false economy. Ensuring that people are armed with expert legal advice to take on incorrect benefits decisions will not only help people get the benefits they are entitled to, it should make it less likely that flawed decision takes place in the first place, which would be good for the individuals themselves, and help to tackle the tens of millions of pounds spent on administering appeals against flawed decisions.”
The number of claimants granted legal aid in benefits cases has plummeted from 91,431 in 2012-13 to 478 in 2017-18, according to Legal Aid Agency figures.
A 2010 Citizens Advice report (pdf) concluded that for every £1 of legal aid expenditure on benefits advice, the state potentially saved £8.80.
Labour estimates that to restore early legal advice to pre-Laspo levels for benefits cases would cost £18m a year and help about 90,000 cases.
The party has already pledged to restore legal aid funding for advice in all housing cases, reversing far-reaching cuts imposed by the government five years ago. It has also promised to re-establish early advice entitlements in the family courts and to review the legal aid means tests.