Legal aid cuts could see Stoke-on-Trent residents take law into their own hands, warns top adviser
ONE of the country's top experts on legal aid fears that people in Stoke-on-Trent may take the law into their own hands once major funding cuts come into force next month.
Richard Miller, head of legal aid at the Law Society, fears 'society will suffer' once state support for many civil cases is abolished on April 1.
Mr Miller visited Stoke-on-Trent yesterday to discuss the issue with representatives from the legal profession and the voluntary sector.
He talked to them about the impact the cuts will have, and the approaches being taken by organisations to ease the resulting problems.
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North Staffordshire has one of the highest levels of legal aid use in the country, with around 10,000 people accessing it every year.
The Government is withdrawing support for a wide range of civil matters, including divorce and welfare cases, in order to save £350 million.
Mr Miller says the cuts will have worrying consequences in Stoke-on-Trent, both for vulnerable families who rely on legal aid and society as a whole.
He said: "In areas that have been less reliant on legal aid, you will find other support networks which help people in need, such as churches and other organisations.
"But in places such as Stoke-on-Trent, where there is a concentrated high level of need, there is just not going to be anything else that will be able to make up the difference.
"This could result in a decline in social cohesion, as people decide to take the law into their own hands."
Keele University School of Law's community legal companion scheme is one of the new ways in which legal assistance is being provided in North Staffordshire. Law students work with partner agencies such as charity Brighter Futures to help unrepresented litigants through the legal process.
But Mr Miller believed more will have to be done.
He said: "I suspect we will see all sorts of innovative approaches such as this. But it can't come close to replicating what will be lost through the legal aid cuts. Other organisations are facing funding cuts of their own."
Gill Brown, chief executive of Brighter Futures, which provides support to vulnerable people, said: "It's not just the affect on charities which we should be concerned about. It's the impact on our prison system, on our A&E departments, our police cells and our children's homes."