'Vulnerable people will be hurt' by £350m legal aid cuts
Government cuts in legal aid could see the most vulnerable people in the South West "taking the law into their hands", according to a Cornwall-based lawyer.
Cuts will come into force in April this year with legal aid eligibility withdrawn from several areas including social welfare law and family law, which covers divorce and child custody arrangements.
Exceptions will include child protection proceedings involving local councils and where domestic abuse is involved.
Government data for 2010 shows that legal aid funded 53,800 cases before the court and 211,000 family cases when people sought advice and assistance from solicitors .
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The majority of these cases will no longer be eligible for legal aid support – cuts are expected to save the taxpayer £350 million from the £2.2 billion legal aid budget.
However Andrew Lobb, an Associate and specialist in family law with Stephens Scown LLP in St Austell, said the impact on some of the most vulnerable members of society could be significant, outweighing any benefits the Government may hope to achieve in budget cuts.
He said: "The cuts will have a major impact upon people seeking advice, often when they are feeling very vulnerable and isolated.
"For example cases concerning a child's living arrangements and the time that they spend with an absent parent or relative will no longer automatically be paid by public funding unless domestic violence is involved and evidenced.
"This is likely to lead to many people having to represent themselves in court with a risk that the court system will become clogged up with cases by people understandably unfamiliar with the numerous court processes and requirements.
"There is also the risk that people may take the law into their own hands in respect of arrangements concerning children, for example, by refusing contact.
"My fear is that these factors are likely to place a greater burden upon social care and the police as well as other agencies such as the health service."
According to the firm legal aid work currently accounts for around 10% of their fee income. A spokesman added: "Concern about this change is widespread, from the legal profession to advice agencies and charities.
"Without legal representation, judges expect cases to take five times as long, not to mention the stress on the individuals involved."