More than 30 students are volunteering one day a week at Citizens Advice Newcastle, the advice charity which helps people with issues such as debt to divorce.
Reported by Chronicle Live, the students join other volunteers providing free legal advice to clients over the telephone and in face-to-face appointments on a range of legal areas, including family law, housing, welfare, employment law, consumer law and immigration.
Benefits and family law are the biggest concerns the students are hearing about – both areas which have been affected by Government cuts. Legal aid is no longer available for most benefits appeals, or for family law cases, unless they involve domestic abuse.
Shona Alexander, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice Newcastle, said: “The vast cuts to legal aid have left a huge gap in support for people going through the legal process in Newcastle and through launching this new partnership with Northumbria Law School, we can support more people who otherwise can’t access the legal and civil rights advice and support they need.
“The biggest pressures are the changes to welfare benefits and the changes to benefits appeals, we now have to explain to people what they’re actually likely to get from an appeal, how to put their case, what to say if they do go to a tribunal.
“I think the students find it quite hard, but it’s a good opportunity: it’s one thing to know the theory, it’s another to explain it to someone who may be distressed, who may not have great English. “
Paul McKeown, Director of the Student Law Office at Northumbria University, said: “Between legal aid cuts and other austerity measures there are very few places now where people can actually access advice, so organisations like Citizen’s Advice have seen a massive increase in demand for their services. We recognised there was a demand for good-quality legal advice and we have a lot of students who are aspiring to be lawyers and who have an interest in public service.
“They have skills which can go some way to helping resolve these problems – we’re not going to make any claims that it’s replacing legal aid, but it’s some way to easing the problem. If people come in with a problem, the students can point them in the right direction, and, in some cases where people actually are entitled to legal aid and don’t realise it, they can make them aware of that.
“We are giving something back to the community and, at the same time, assisting our students in developing the life skills they’re going to need.”
Legal aid cuts began with the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which was intended to save £350m. It has seen the number of people accessing legal aid fall by 82% in eight years, with most issues involving housing problems, family law, immigration, employment disputes and challenges to welfare benefit payments no longer eligible for free legal help – leaving more people with these issues turning to free services like Citizen’s Advice for help.
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