The proposed government cuts to legal aid would disproportionately affect the not-for-profit sector and could significantly increase demand for the sector’s services, according to the welfare rights and support charity Lasa.
Terence Stokes, chief executive of Lasa, said £64m of the £114m cuts that the government is proposing to make to face-to-face legal advice was spent in the area of social welfare. These cuts would be felt most heavily by not-for-profit organisations, he said.
"The areas of legal aid where the cuts would be made are more often handled by not-for-profit organisations than private ones," he said.
The government’s consultation on its proposals for cutting legal aid by about £350m closes today. If the proposals go ahead it would affect spending on areas such as welfare benefits law, debt legal aid and housing legal aid.
Stokes said the knock-on consequences of people not receiving legal aid could include an increase in social problems such as loss of employment, domestic violence and physical and mental ill-health.
Jane Backhurst, director of campaigns, communications and policy at the Law Centres Federation, also said the cuts would disproportionately affect the voluntary sector.
"The Ministry of Justice’s own impact assessment showed the cuts would mean voluntary organisations that provide legal aid would lose 77 per cent of their legal aid income, while private firms would lose only 25 per cent," she said.
Simon Pugh, head of legal services at the housing and homelessness charity Shelter, said the proposed cuts would mean the charity would lose about 46 per cent of its total income from legal aid, which represented 30 per cent of its total income from contracts and statutory funding for advice services.
"If we can’t provide people with an early resolution to their problems it could lead to an increase in social problems such as homelessness," he said. "And that will result in increasing pressure on charities that provide services at that point, when they are already under more strain."
A statement from Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: "We are very concerned that the government is pressing ahead with these proposals despite the findings of its own impact assessment, which point to a disproportionately detrimental effect on access to advice for the poor and vulnerable, the undermining of the not-for-profit sector and a number of serious negative wider social and economic impacts."
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice said not-for-profit organisations would continue to play an important role in the advice sector.