This is an expanded version of my latest post for The Times, which appears on The Experts blog today.
I was doing some work for the Law Society. I travelled to a small Midlands town, to a high street lawyer’s office next to a greasy spoon cafe. I went in, and met a lawyer whose drive and dynamism knocked me out.
This lawyer dealt only with legal aid cases and frankly, cared only for the clients. There was a chaotic atmosphere and the files were piled high – all light years from the grand offices of Central London lawyers. But there was equal commitment to each client and case, for substantially less reward. There was little doubt about that lawyer’s ability and competence. It was impressive.
Legal aid cases used to provide my bread and butter too, but the cumbersome, bureaucratic process drove me to distraction. Whenever I wanted to take a new step, I had to obtain authorisation. Payments were low and slow in coming. Ultimately, I decided to move on.
However there are thousands of high street practitioners who have continued to soldier on, giving their services to those who cannot afford to pay top rates. They work hard for those in need, and those who are least able to express themselves in court. But these able lawyers are swimming against the tide. The legal aid bill, we are told, is unsustainable. Why so? Why is it so high?
Legal aid used to be within reach of a large proportion of our population. Slowly but surely, the qualifications have been whittled away. Now only the poorest will qualify… but with surprising exceptions.
Mayfair resident Asil Nadir, the former chief executive of Polly Peck, has been granted legal aid to defend a hugely expensive fraud trial. He fled the UK in 1993 after being charged with 66 counts of theft, lived in apparent luxury in Cyprus, and returned last summer to face the music.
In these tough economic times, should the taxpayer fund his defence? I am unconvinced. So why does our system provide apparently ample resources for white collar legal aid, while depriving the needy? If cuts need to made, surely they should be made in Mr Nadir’s case first?
Worse still, the government is proposing further restrictions for the poor and the vulnerable in areas across civil law, such as both parties in abusive marriages, children cases, clinical negligence, education, welfare and housing. The “Sound off for Justice” campaign is valiantly seeking support to stop the cuts, and the Law Society has its own sensible proposals for saving legal aid while also saving money. So far, however, the protests have apparently fallen on deaf ears.
There are those who argue that lawyers are trying to save their own skins. Not so. Even those of us who are not legal aid lawyers are horrified by the plans. We live in a democracy, in which access to justice is extremely precious. Shouldn’t the state assistance we have be shared out fairly?