With cuts in civil legal aid due to hit asylum seekers and other vulnerable groups, the Methodist Church has urged the government to rethink.
Last week the Legal Services Commission announced it is to reduce the number of firms able to offer social, welfare and family legal aid from about 2,400 to 1,300, in a move condemned by the Refugee Council and other welfare groups.
Methodist spokesperson Rachel Lampard, who is Leader and Policy Adviser for the Joint Public Issues Team of the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church and the Baptists, commented: "Cutting the legal aid budget puts already vulnerable people at greater risk of being returned to dangerous situations."
She continued: "We recognise that the Government wants to make budget savings in this area, but this should only be done once we are confident that people will not be denied justice as a result. The quality of initial decision-making in asylum cases must first be improved – it is estimated that as many as a quarter of initial decisions are currently overturned on appeal."
"Sound and timely legal representation is vital if correct decisions are to be made in the first place, and incorrect decisions overturned. People who have few resources of their own must be able to access legal aid to ensure that they receive justice," concluded Lampard.
Meanwhile, the Refugee Council's CEO, Donna Covey said: "Slashing funding for legal aid and restricting the number of law firms that can provide it means asylum-seekers will either be forced to pay for legal services themselves or, more likely, to go without."
She continued: "This will result in people who deserve protection here being wrongly refused asylum and returned to countries where their lives are in danger. This is unacceptable.
"People who have fled human rights abuses and are now seeking safety in our country must have legal representation to ensure they are given a fair hearing and can be recognised as genuine refugees. As asylum-seekers are not allowed to work, they have no choice but to rely on publicly funded legal advice," declared Ms Covey.
Desmond Hudson, CEO of the Law Society, the official body for solicitors, called on the Legal Services Commission to publish in full the findings of its recent review.
He said: "The fall-out from the recent tendering process will see almost 50 per cent of firms previously doing legal aid work removed in a matter of a few weeks."
"The effect of such a massive reduction in the number of firms is that tens of thousands of clients around England and Wales are likely to be forced to find a new family solicitor all at the same time in October 2010," said Hudson.
"This will impact heavily on families and vulnerable people, preventing them [gaining] access to vital legal services when they need them most. As important, is the glaring evidence that the allocation and distribution of contracts will leave significant problems for access to justice," he concluded.
As part of its cuts in public spending, the Ministry of Justice is looking to axe 25 per cent from its £6 billion a year budget, and legal assistance to vulnerable groups is in the firing line.
Legal aid assists two million people every year in cases ranging from child custody to asylum application. But the bulk of the savings will come from the £900 million a year spent on civil legal aid rather than on criminal cases.
Under a new tendering system, many of the nation's oldest legal aid firms, as well as key specialists, will no longer be able to provide the service to those most in need.