05:26, November 11 65 0 theguardian.com

2017-11-11 05:26:05
public servant: my letter to the public  
 Cuts have put many elderly and disabled people beyond the reach of our legal aid

I am the head of a small team of community care lawyers funded by legal aid to assist some of the most vulnerable people in society and challenge public bodies such as social services and the NHS.

Legal aid cuts, however, have put many vulnerable people beyond our reach; now we only help those in the direst circumstances. The cuts began in April 2013 when new legislation came in changing the way legal aid operated.

Government data shows that the number of legal aid providers like us has fallen by 20% in five years. Now some people are simply no longer eligible for our help – they fail the financial test but can’t afford private solicitors and have to defend themselves.

These are people like the elderly man whose sister – his only relative – was moved by her local authority to a care home too far away for him to travel to. He wanted to fight for her best interests in court, and before 2013 he’d have been entitled to our help. That’s no longer the case and he could not understand all the court papers without an adviser, so we couldn’t get involved.

Community care cases will often involve a challenge to a decision about services that will or will not be provided, such as carers, specialist equipment and supported accommodation. We also assist family members of those who need decisions to be made about their health and welfare in the court of protection. With so many fewer legal aid providers, especially outside London, our list of new referrals is ever-growing.

Advising a disabled person remotely over the telephone can be very challenging. It is harder to build up a rapport and trust as well and causes delays in getting things done. I recently helped one young woman who had been told by her local authority that she would be receiving less help each day to meet her personal care needs. I emailed her with advice – which she totally misunderstood, thinking I was taking the local authority’s side. When I called to discuss her 15-page care plan she couldn’t hold the telephone for more than a quarter of an hour, so we could only discuss one or two pages at a time.

Benefit cuts can also affect clients’ entitlement to legal aid, as their financial means have to be reassessed whenever there is a change in circumstances. One of my clients was particularly vulnerable and hadn’t been able to appeal against a decision that she should go on to jobseeker’s allowance because she had been deemed able to work. She had severe anxiety and depression, stemming from her being abused as a child.

There were often days and weeks when she couldn’t face leaving the house and it seemed utterly ridiculous that we had to badger her to bring in letters from the benefit agency to see if we could help her. She couldn’t get the paperwork to me in the time the legal aid agency required (let alone manage a job) and so the funding in the case I was helping her with was revoked and I was no longer able to assist her.

We are seeing situations such as this more and more often and are just grateful that there are charitable organisations out there who can at least offer a little assistance – and hope that, in turn, their funding isn’t cut.

Jemma Garside is a community care solicitor for Duncan Lewis Solicitors, the biggest provider of legal aid in the UK.

This series aims to give a voice to the staff behind the public services that are hit by mounting cuts and rising demand, and so often denigrated by the press, politicians and public. If you would like to write an article for the series, contact kirstie.brewer@theguardian.com

Sign up for your free Guardian Public Leaders newsletter with comment and sector views sent direct to you every month. Follow us: @Guardianpublic