Legal aid, or the lack of it, is a regular theme in my posts. In fact, sometimes it seems that I write about little else other than the effects of the government’s fateful decision to virtually abolish legal aid for private law family matters. However, I only write about it so much as it is so often a subject in the news – a state that will no doubt continue for some time to come.
The latest example of this is the Bar Council revealing preliminary findings of a survey it has conducted to assess the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (better, but not affectionately, known as ‘LASPO’), the legislation which enacted the cuts. I will not go through the findings in detail as they will no doubt be covered elsewhere. They are, however, completely predictable: 80 per cent of respondents to the survey (who were mostly barristers) felt that LASPO had impacted upon access to family justice. Eighty-eight per cent said that they had resulted in more litigants in person in family matters, while 61 per cent noted an increase in the number of lay clients saying they had difficulty accessing legal advice and representation. Sixty-nine per cent of respondents who worked as family legal aid practitioners reported a decline in fee income.
The difficulty for those without the necessary means to obtain proper legal advice and representation has, of course, been the main subject of discussion when it comes to the impact of LASPO. After all, that’s what LASPO does: remove the ability of the less well off to obtain proper advice and representation.
What is not quite so obvious, however, is the effect upon lawyers who previously undertook large volumes of legally aided work, whether barristers, solicitors or legal executives, all of whom are trained and regulated. Almost without exception these people are not ‘fat cat’ lawyers, as some would have you believe. They chose to do legal aid work rather than more lucrative private client or commercial work because they believed in the idea of access to justice for all and wanted to provide that public service.
LASPO, of course, means that many of those lawyers will simply no longer be able to provide that service. Some will move to private family work, but there isn’t enough of that for all of them to make a living. Large numbers will inevitably move to other areas of legal work and many will no doubt leave the law entirely. Their huge experience, knowledge and dedication will be lost forever.
And that is the worst thing – it won’t just be the lawyers who suffer. It will be the public, who will find it increasingly difficult to find good lawyers to deal with those few areas still covered by legal aid. There will either be less choice, or no choice at all. In fact, some might find it difficult to find any lawyers still prepared to undertake legal aid work. Those who can find a legal aid lawyer are likely to have to travel further to obtain advice.
Imagine, for a moment, the plight of parents who are threatened with having their children taken into care but who can’t find a suitable lawyer to help them. It hardly bears consideration.
There is also the issue of the reduction in the ‘pool of expertise’. Legal aid lawyers contribute a vast amount to jurisprudence in the area of family law. Without that contribution we are all going to be the poorer, whether we can afford a lawyer or not.
Yes, I will keep writing about the legal aid cuts, and I will make no apology for this. The cuts have had such a profound adverse impact upon access to justice for the less well off in society that all right-minded people must continue to keep those cuts at the top of the agenda, until they are reversed or replaced with something equally suitable.