Advice agencies rally against cuts

CAMPAIGNERS are calling for an urgent re-think over plans to cut legal aid which will leave thousands of vulnerable residents with nowhere to turn for advice.

Agencies like the Hastings Advice and Representation Centre (HARC), the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) and the Brighton Housing Trust will lose half their funding under the plans to slash the legal aid budget.

And with the town facing an uncertain economic future amid huge public spending cuts, many needing advice on benefits, debt or housing issues could be left high and dry.

Alfie Jackson, of Battle Road, St Leonards, was just 11 when he was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2009. After filling in “pages and pages” of “very complex” forms, his mum Nona was told the family qualified for a minimum care allowance.

But after HARC took up her case and saw it through to a tribunal, Alfie’s disability living allowances were bumped up to the highest levels, boosting the family income by hundreds of pounds.

“Obviously everything in your life blows up with an illness like this,” she said. “My husband was working six days a week but we were running out of money. If it hadn’t been for Theresa at HARC we wouldn’t have bothered appealing the benefits decision. She was always there for us.

“The fog in your brain is just unbelievable and the last thing you want to do is deal with people who make you feel like you are making things up.”

In the end, the tribunal took just 15 minutes to overturn the Government decision, and Mrs Jackson admits the extra money has been a huge help.

“I did not realise what impact it would have - if it wasn’t for HARC we would still be trying to pick up the pieces. They cannot cut the service - it’s awful to think other families might not get the help we did.”

East Sussex Advice Plus (ESAP), an umbrella organisation for advice agencies, is organising a public protest next Friday (June 3).

ESAP manager Julie Eason said: “Losing the legal aid funding will have a huge knock-on effect. This is about access to justice.

“Huge numbers are going to need advice over the coming months and years but are not going to be able to get it. To say people who are stressed can navigate the system is just ridiculous.

“They talk about the Big Society but this will just hit the voluntary sector over the head with a hammer,” she added.

The protest begins at Hastings Pier at 12.30pm, with a march to the town hall where a panel of figures will address a public meeting. One speaker will be Amber Rudd MP who is prepared to face down her own Government on this issue.

She said: “This would affect very important services provided to some of the most vulnerable in Hastings and I will be fight any attempts to reduce the funding. I have already been quite outspoken about this.

“I do not think the ministers realise the consequences it would have on a town like ours.”

Pictured: Julie Eason and Nona Jackson discuss the issue