Legal aid cuts leave employees unable to pursue discrimination cases

Cuts to legal aid funding have ensured that employers can get away with discrimination toward their employees, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission has warned.

The government’s announcement that it will work to improve access to justice by removing barriers that many of its own ministers and MPs created by cutting legal aid in 2013 have been welcomed, but the rights watchdog says the U-turn does not go far enough.

Those barriers include removing employment tribunal claims from the scope of funding and a mandatory telephone gateway for those applying for legal aid, which cuts costs by rejecting tens of thousands of cases based on the phone call alone. As the Law Gazette reports, 33,150 calls alleging discrimination were made to the gateway service between 2013 and 2018. Of those, only 1,646 received face-to-face legal advice and a further 6,064 received telephone advice.

Providing evidence to show financial eligibility to legal aid has become extremely difficult. One solicitor told the commission: “The Legal Aid Agency expect you to explain an absolutely ridiculous level of detail about your client's finances, even when they are on means-tested benefits... Then the Legal Aid Agency will start saying ‘Well, what's that £50 there? What is that £20 there?’ It's backwards and forwards and backwards and forwards, sometimes for weeks.”

In addition, the fact that many vulnerable people attempting to make claims are on zero-hours contracts further complicates their finances and makes it harder to secure legal aid.

David Isaac, chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, said: “Legal aid was specifically set up to ensure that those who have been wronged, but cannot afford their own legal representation, can access justice. The threat of legal action is a powerful deterrent for perpetrators and makes it clear that society will not tolerate injustice. Challenging such complex issues as discrimination should never be a David vs Goliath battle, and the system is failing if individuals are left to fight cases themselves at an employment tribunal or in court.”

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