Legal Aid has been the undervalued and neglected third pillar of the welfare state for years and years.
Compare with public perception of health and education – for example, the majority of parliament seem to agree that NHS and education are valuable – access to justice doesn’t appear to generate the same cross-party support.
You may believe fervently that you have rights under the law and that if the time comes, you will be entitled to defend them; but the nasty truth is that you are likely to have to pay – quite a lot of money – to do so.
It’s at the moment they need it most that many people find there is no legal aid for them and their assumption that it must be there, surely, turns out to be horribly and shockingly wrong.
I’ve been a legal aid lawyer all through my career and I campaign for it every working day. Justice shouldn’t just be for those who can pay for it, or for those who are brave enough and well-informed enough (or crazy enough) to take on the legal system by themselves. I’ve seen at first hand the impact on the court system of the big increase in numbers of people trying this: the distraught litigants, the frazzled judges, the stressed-out court staff and, sometimes, the lawyers trying to help everyone – not just their own clients – and not being able to keep this wild west show on the road.
Why has it got so bad?
When the legal aid system was conceived a few years after the last war, it was an equal partner with health and education in the creation of the welfare state. Over decades, its relative status dwindled and the legal aid system fell behind in funding. I know from experience you don’t make pots of money as a legal aid firm; it’s a challenge to run one.
When austerity was announced, in 2010, disproportionate cuts were required from the budget of the Ministry of Justice, which includes legal aid. The MoJ’s budget isn’t ‘protected’, unlike for example health, and it has suffered cuts year after year. Then in 2013 the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) came into force, adding to cuts in funding a wholesale sweeping-away of areas of law for which legal aid was available. Each year since then hundreds of thousands of people have not been able to get any legal aid at all, no matter if they are on benefits or if it is an issue which goes to the heart of their lives, like being denied contact with a child. The chaos in the court system I’ve described above is one obvious outcome.
The government conceded in 2013 that it would review LASPO after five years, to see how it was working. Many individuals and organisations – including The Law Society of England and Wales, whose Family Law Committee I chair – contributed to this Post-Implementation Review (PIR) and a year ago the government published its response. The response made partial admission that LASPO had not been a brilliant idea. Some of the arguments made during the consultation were accepted by the Ministry of Justice, and indications given of working groups and pilot schemes and other good intentions.
The campaigning for legal aid goes on, but what we now need to see is some actual repair to its very weakened system.
In early February, a year after the PIR concluded, the Law Society reported the results of a survey conducted for it by YouGov. The survey shows that 92% of adults in this country support legal aid. Respondents to the survey want particularly to see victims of domestic abuse and wrongful treatment by the police given legal aid to protect themselves. I don’t think a civilised society can object to that.
The government needs to take action on the problems which have been identified. The difficulties, once simply predicted but now happening in reality, are harming society and giving force to the unhappy belief that there is one rule for the rich and another for the poor. The Post Implementation Review was the discussion; now, we need the action.