The BBC carrys a worrying story today.
“Warning over legal aid cuts for disabled people” the article leads. “Ministers are being urged not to restrict legal aid for disabled people wanting to challenge benefit decisions”.
News comes of yet another way that government is looking to save money – this time on a £2bn legal aid bill which it claims is “unaffordable” – money needed by disabled people to get legal assistance when benefit claims go against them.
This action is being questioned by a group of 23 charities including Scope, Mind, Mencap, RNIB and Leonard Cheshire.
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice told the BBC that the review of legal aid meant that it would be “targeted at the most serious cases”.
I would argue that ANY situation where you could potentially lose your benefits is a “most serious case”. Indeed, given the comments on this blog and my own (FlashSays) it can at times be life and death.
Comments on my blog include Roger, who wrote “Since this all began [cuts to benefits for disabled people] I have began to feel totally paranoid and at times have given thought to killing myself mainly due to the daily pain I endure but also due to the uncaring way this government is treating us.”
James Gilbert simply said: “If my benefits are cut I don’t know what I would do”
You only have to read one article - Suicide is part of the disability debate – to know how important it is for disabled people to receive benefits. As well as keeping them alive (funding a roof over their heads, food, heat and light) it also validates that person. “Yes, we know you are disabled. We believe you.”
The nature of disability can be such that it makes it hard to complete benefit application forms. People can have memory problems or find it hard to concentrate. They may have physical problems with writing or typing, or they may not be able to construct clear sentences. I know that when I am struggling with pain I find it harder to think, and this affects my ability to write coherently – it is clear to see when I review letters I’ve written, I can easily tell which were done on a “good pain day” and which on a “bad pain day”. But some people don’t get good days, only bad ones – and yet through this they are expected to complete long booklets explaining why they are entitled to benefits.
Disabled people should of course be supported to appeal when a benefit decision goes against them. It’s already been proven that less than 0.5% of Disability Living Allowance applications are fraudulent, for example – these are the government’s own figures. Therefore, when claimants find a decision goes against them, and come forward asking for help to appeal, they are almost certainly going to be genuine, people who really do need help. Likewise with Employment and Support Allowance.
Commenters on my own blog and this one have said that the whole application process (including the fear of perhaps having to appeal) is so stressful that they have decided not to apply and to try to live in poverty without the benefit they are entitled to. Surely people should be given legal assistance to appeal, and feel supported by the government, rather than being forced to live in poverty because they feel beaten by the system?
It is critical that legal aid is available for those who need to challenge benefit decisions. A third of disabled people aged 25 to retirement live in a low-income household – and twice as many disabled people live in poverty compared to those who are able bodied. Without legal support when benefit decisions go against them, this shocking figure is surely set to grow.
Paul Reekie and Christelle Pardo have already killed themselves when their benefits were cut. How many will follow?
Providing this legal aid really could be a matter of life or death.