As the deadline approaches at the end of this week for submissions to the Ministry of Justice’s Post-Implementation Review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (‘LASPO’), which abolished legal aid for most private law family matters, the Government’s policy on legal aid has come under a withering attack from several quarters.
Last week Sir Ernest Ryder, senior president of tribunals, criticised the legal aid cuts, saying that the justice system is “beset by problems that derive from a lack of funding” and that that the “quality of justice” is under threat.
Meanwhile, in a speech about human rights given to the law school at Northwestern University in Chicago, Supreme Court justice (and family law specialist) Lord Wilson said this:
“In pursuit of its economic policy, the UK government has recently felt the need to dismantle much of our precious system of legal aid, introduced in 1949 along with the other two pillars of our welfare state, namely social security and the National Health Service.”
He went on:
“It is, in particular, the disadvantaged who need to be acquainted with their human rights and helped to enforce them; but they are unlikely to be able to do so without free legal advice and representation. And, even where it is required to continue to provide free legal aid, for example to defendants to criminal charges and to parents threatened with the removal of their children, the UK is dismantling it indirectly by setting rates of remuneration for the lawyers at levels so uncommercial that, reluctantly, most of them feel unable to do that work.
Access to justice is under threat in the UK. Our lower courts are now full of litigants who have to represent themselves, often of course very ineptly. In our own court [i.e. the Supreme Court] very able advocates still regularly appear. But, particularly when they are asserting human rights against a public authority, they nobly appear pro bono, or for a small fee under the attenuated legal aid scheme; and it constantly offends me that it should be necessary for them to do so.”
In short, the disadvantaged, the primary target of the welfare state, are being denied access to justice. Pretty damning stuff.
But it does not stop there. Last Friday the Law Society published its submission on the LASPO review. The submission refers to a report on the effects of LASPO that the Society published last year (amongst other relevant reports and research). That report found that legal aid is no longer available for many of those who need it, that those eligible for legal aid find it hard to access it, that wide gaps in provision are not being addressed, and that LASPO has had a wider and detrimental impact on the state and society. Again, damning stuff.
Christina Blacklaws, the President of the Law Society, has said:
“If British justice still exists it is only for the wealthy or the small number of very low incomes lucky enough to find a solicitor willing and able to fight a mountain of red tape to secure legal aid.
“That’s because the means test bites at such a low level and because more and more solicitors are giving up battling the bureaucracy and uneconomic rates of pay that accompanies legal aid work, leading to growing advice deserts across the country.
“But there’s a swelling justice deficit here – if people cannot effectively enforce and defend their rights, then for all practical purposes those rights do not exist.”
“The justice system is facing a cliff edge scenario: civil, family and criminal defence solicitors are part of an increasingly ageing profession. Government cuts mean there are not enough young lawyers entering fields of law covered by legal aid. What message does this send the world about our justice system?”
In short, many have been denied access to justice due to the legal aid cuts. As for those for whom legal aid is still (at least theoretically) available, it will be increasingly hard to find a solicitor prepared to assist them, due to the large number giving up legal aid, and the small number of young lawyers prepared to do legal aid work.
Unless the Government is prepared to listen to these views and is prepared to roll back the legal aid cuts, or at least the worst of them, then we really will be left with a country in which justice exists only for the wealthy.