I was recently asked which one area of civil legal aid I would protect from the upcoming spending cuts in the UK. It is difficult to single out one area of law, but I think I would protect employment advice in the civil legal aid budget for three reasons:
The rise in unemployment
In the last three years there has been a substantial rise in unemployment and The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development predicts that in 2011 over 200,000 people in the UK will lose their jobs. This increases the probability that the number of people requiring advice regarding the legality and fairness of terminations and redundancies will also rise. Statistics released by the Employment Tribunal Service (Ministry of Justice: 2010), which show a 50% increase in claims made between 2008/9 and 2009/10, illustrate this point. However, for reasons explained below, it is doubtful whether people on low income – particularly young people, who cannot afford to pay for legal advice, will be able to formally or informally resolve employment disputes without free legal advice.
The challenge of resolving employment disputes
Ken Clarke in the recent Green Paper on legal aid reform [PDF] claims that people should not resort to legal professionals to resolve disputes. However, from my experience and research that I have carried out, many are unable to resolve their own employment law related problems. In a recent employment law training session I delivered, none of the seven young participants (18-25) knew of the existence of Employment Tribunals (“ET”) or even of a civil justice system. Furthermore, in 2009 I authored a piece of research, Measuring Young People’s Legal Capability, which found that young people lack basic knowledge of their employment rights. The findings of the English and Welsh Civil Justice Survey (Legal Services Research Centre: 2009) confirm that this is a widespread problem. Where there is a genuine complaint, there is therefore a danger that without free legal assistance many people will be unable claim their employment rights.
The impacts of not receiving advice
The impact of not being able to get advice on employment issues is potentially threefold. Firstly, people who are losing their jobs, particularly those on low incomes, will be unable to seek free advice to challenge unfair practices and payments owed, the cost of which could ultimately impact on the economy and welfare system. Secondly, It has been well documented by studies such as the English and Welsh Civil Justice Survey that unresolved problems result in secondary issues such as personal debt and mental illness. Thirdly, without advice it is conceivable that ETs will receive unmeritorious claims, which would have otherwise been filtered out through advice agencies operating with legal aid grants, resulting in an increase in cost for the Tribunal system and ACAS.
To remove advice for employment issues would most likely prevent a substantial number of people from resolving complaints and possibly cause a host of secondary problems including increased personal debt and a clogged ET system. For these reasons, advice for employment issues should be protected in the civil legal aid budget.