It’s incredibly sad to see something that was once cherished wither and die. It’s even sadder when that process of slow death is caused by wilful destruction and neglect.
Like a once beautiful old building our legal aid system is crumbling before our eyes. Once something to be immensely proud of, providing as it did equal access to justice for all, it is now a dilapidated ruin, with the bulldozers hovering at the gates. Some look on in horror. Many, sadly, are rubbing their hands with glee, as they add up the pennies that are being saved now that they no longer have to pay for the ageing edifice’s upkeep.
Now, all of that may sound rather melodramatic. After all, how many of us ever need legal aid anyway? And why should the celebrated ‘hardworking taxpayer’ line the pockets of fat cat lawyers?
Well, just stop and think for a minute. Suppose you’re wrongly accused of a crime, or the local authority are threatening to take your children away from you. And suppose that you’re out of work or on a low income, so you can’t afford to pay for a lawyer. Just imagine how you would cope without a lawyer to represent you. It hardly bears thinking about. Now, thankfully legal aid is still available for crime and private law children work, but as we will see in a moment, you may have great difficulty in finding a provider in your area. And what if you have a problem that is no longer covered by legal aid, such as seeking contact with your child? Sorry mate, you’re already on your own.
And as for the myth of the fat cat lawyer, there never really was any legal aid gravy train. With a few exceptions, mostly for those at the top of the profession, lawyers did not get fat doing legal aid work. I suspect, for example, that few of the public know that lawyers doing legal aid work get paid substantially less than they charge for doing the same work privately. The fact is that most legal aid lawyers make much less than their privately paid counterparts, and only do the work out of a sense of public duty.
The legal aid system was one of the flagships of the welfare state, aimed at creating an equal society, where no one starved and where everyone had access to health care and justice. Like the NHS, it was truly something to be proud of, setting us apart from many other ‘civilised’ countries. It wasn’t perfect, but at least it tried to provide a level playing field for all.
So, what prompts these morbid thoughts? Two depressing news items that I came across this week.
In the first, we were told that the 2013 legal aid cuts are causing ‘advice deserts’ across the country, where people cannot find a legal aid provider in their area. The story related in particular to housing law providers, but could equally relate to family law providers. We were told, for example, that the Law Society had found twelve council areas in Wales which have access to just one firm with a legal aid contract to offer housing advice, and that Surrey, Shropshire and Suffolk have no housing provider at all. Now, the whole idea of advice deserts is not new, but when the national media are talking about it then clearly the situation is getting pretty serious.
Along similar lines, the second story (which is actually a month old, but I came across it again this week) told us that the number of firms providing legal aid is continuing to decline gradually, according to figures published by the Ministry of Justice and the Legal Aid Agency. The decline for civil providers was greater than the decline for crime providers, with new cases beginning in family legal help between January and March 18 per cent lower than the first quarter of last year. Again, hardly surprising, but deeply depressing nonetheless.
We are witnessing the slow death of legal aid in this country, and the saddest part about it is that few people seem to care. Of course, when they find themselves in need of legal aid themselves they will care. But by then it is likely to be too late: either legal aid will not be available, or there will be no one providing a legal aid service.
Welcome to a country that no longer even tries to be equal.