The impending legal aid cuts make it a greater priority than ever to ensure poorer people complain if legal services deteriorate, the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) has declared in the wake of a government decision to scrap a duty on public authorities to reduce inequality caused by socio-economic factors.
Adam Sampson said he was worried about how a body like LeO, “with a clear commitment to the values of equality and human rights can make sense of what we are being asked to do by government”.
Mr Sampson said that given “major cuts” coming to legal aid, “now more than ever, if we want to track the impact on the quality of services offered to poorer people in this country, we need to make a special effort to ensure that they do actually complain if those services get worse rather than simply suffer in silence”.
He explained that the announcement last week by equalities minister Theresa May that the socio-economic duty in the Equalities Act would be scrapped came just two days after LeO’s board had agreed its draft statement of equalities objectives and priorities ready for consultation, timing he described as “irritating”.
He added: “Fortunately, we are clear that we want to go further than the law requires. Statute imposes on us a positive duty to ensure that we are offering a decent service to people who are from different ethnicities or religions, for example. But we also have a strong ethical commitment to compensate for the fact that some people who might want to use our services will have difficulty in doing so because they are too poor or socially excluded to do so. We know from research that the lower down the socioeconomic scale people are, the less they feel able to challenge decisions made about them.
“Other ombudsman services have for years been grappling with the fact that the profile of the people who complain to them is inexorably skewed towards the middle aged and middle class. Yet I doubt that it is the middle aged and middle class that have most to complain about from the service they receive from lawyers.”