WITH the threat of cuts to a vital life line for many hard-up families, reporter Richard Gladstone speaks to those directly affected by proposals to cut legal aid.
THE recession has taken its toll on many people in Hastings and the rest of 1066 Country.
Countless families struggle to make ends meet, have the threat of losing their homes looming over their heads, or live in fear they could be next in line for redundancy as hard-up firms feel the pinch.
Because of all of these factors more and more people are needing the services from the myriad of advice agencies in town, such as the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), Hastings Advice and Representation Centre (HARC), and Brighton Housing Trust.
Many people, especially in Hastings, which ranks as the 19th poorest town in the UK, have little money and need legal aid in order to fight their case.
Julie Eason, manager of East Sussex Advice Partnership, said: “There is a bigger demand for advice than we can currently meet. For example HARC saw 15,000 people in Hastings and Rother last year and the figure for the CAB in Hastings was not far off that.”
But the proposals by the Coalition Government to cut legal aid for people desperate for help with benefits, housing and debt is causing increasing anger among townsfolk.
Agencies like HARC and the CAB could stand to lose half their funding.
Around 200 angry campaigners protested against the proposals by marching from Hastings Pier to the town hall last Friday (June 3).
Representatives from HARC, the CAB, Hastings Furniture Service, Brighton Housing Trust and Hastings Against The Cuts took part in the march, with many passers-by in the cars sounding their horns in support.
One of those in support of the protesters is Hastings’s MP Amber Rudd, who is prepared to fight her own party.
She said: “It’s all about caring for vulnerable people. Both parties have agreed that there need to be cuts to the legal aid benefit system by £350million over four years. But this is the wrong area that is being targeted.”
If the cuts go ahead they could come into force from November next year.
One campaigner at the march, Fiona Mccormick, of Cornwallis Terrace, said: “I have needed the services for a long time because I have not had access to my children for 15 years and, as a result, suffered a great deal of stress.
“On the morning of my court case I had no solicitor present and could not get legal aid.
“If people can’t get legal aid then they can’t fight for their children, especially if they have no private funding of their own.
“I made a speech to this effect outside the EU Parliament in Brussels and campaigned outside the courts in London.”
She said it was a ‘basic human right’ for everyone to be able to access legal aid.
That was a sentiment echoed by the council’s deputy leader, Councillor Jay Kramer, who marched along with the protesters.
She cited the high levels of domestic violence in Hastings and St Leonards, the numbers of asylum seekers, and the high rate of poor quality housing.
“We have many, many people here needing help and this attack on the legal aid system is hitting the most vulnerable,” she added.
Pat Fisher, who runs Gizmo Kids, said she needed legal aid to help her through a divorce a couple of years ago.
She said: “I found it invaluable and if it’s lost an awful lot of people will be badly affected. Most of the children I help come from single parent families and there has most definitely been an increased need for these advice services.”
Andy Knight, an adviser from HARC, echoed Miss Fisher’s comments and said he had seen more people through the doors wanting advice on benefits, housing and other issues.
Robyn Cleverley, another HARC adviser, said he had definitely seen ‘a lot more new faces’ through the doors in recent months.
But he feared that if legal aid was cut scores of people will be denied access to the level of advice they currently enjoy.
Councillor Alan Cartwright said: “There are many people out there with some sort of vulnerability and cutting away the safety net is just the sort of thing a bullying boss for instance would relish. It gives them a free rein to do the sort of things everyone else would think are totally repugnant.”
Another free service, run by solicitors’ firm Holden and Co, was set up recently and is held every Thursday at 6pm at Holy Trinity Church.
It was set up by Jo Holden, the firm’s senior partner, and ex-councillor Peter Armstrong, and has seen scores of desperate people seeking advice about debt and housing problems.
Mr Holden said: “There will be even more of an increased need for this service, amid the proposals to cut legal aid.
“Many people are frightened to go to a solicitor’s office so holding this in a church puts them more at ease.”
But he feared there were many families suffering in silence.
He said: “I believe there are a lot of people out there in dire straits and are traumatised by their problems but just bury their heads in the sand.”