Legal Aid at a Low Point
The need for justice in the funding of access to justice.
Today saw the launch of the appropriately named Low Commission on the Future of Advice and Legal Support.
The Commission, chaired by Lord Colin Low, will develop a strategy for access to advice and support on Social Welfare Law in England and Wales and will look at asylum, benefits, community care, debt, education (including special educational needs), employment, housing and immigration. It is intended that the Commission will take a wide view of its brief, looking at ways of reducing demand for advice and legal support in these areas, as well as investigating new approaches to delivery and funding.
The launch comes hard on the heels of the announcement by the Justice Secretary that plans are being drawn up to stop legal aid being paid to wealthy suspects who can afford to pay their own legal costs and also follows closely the rejection by the House of Lords of the Government’s plans to restrict legal aid.
Many of those most in need of legal aid – for example those challenging officialdom and who are not articulate enough to put forward their own case – are losing their right to legal aid in April whilst others, arguably less deserving, are continuing to receive it.
It is vital that if the money to fund legal aid is in short supply, that which is available is utilised fairly and for the benefit of those who need and deserve it the most.
Whilst public funding should not be used as a means for using funding as a way to pre-judge cases, nevertheless it must not be squandered on cases such as those involving Abu Hamza (which cost the tax payer almost £1 million) or the defence of career criminals with access to substantial assets of their own.
Under Government plans over 600,000 people with ordinary legal problems such as a divorce, unemployment or disability claims will lose their right to legal aid so that the Government can cut an additional £350 million from the civil legal aid bill.
As the Observer stated in March of this year:
“The government’s abolition of legal aid for whole categories of cases is a direct assault on the essential notion that one law covers us all. Unless those at the bottom of the heap can represent themselves, and the inarticulate will not know how to woo judges, they will be outlaws.
“They may have a good case. They may be the victims of incompetence, corruption or the arrogance of power. But they will not be able to exercise their rights for one reason only: they have no money.
“Far from having a justice system that protects the weak against the strong, we will have a justice system that abandons the weak.”
If we are to have the kind of justice system that we can be proud of, then more careful thought needs to be given by Government to how public money is made available and to whom.
The planned cuts to civil legal aid, although not due to come into force until 31 March next year, are already placing extra strain on hard-pressed advice centres whilst the withdrawal of legal aid is expected to lead to a surge in time-consuming “litigants in person” pursuing claims in the courts unaided by lawyers. A situation that even the judges are unhappy with.
If we are to continue to be a just society – rather than simply a cost-effective one where the strong get stronger and the weak get shafted every time – then we must prioritise issues which enable everyone – not just those with private incomes upon which they can fall back – to be able to access those rights to which they are entitled.
By Duncan Finlyson, Solicitor at Richard Nelson LLP and Manager of the Lawyers Defence Group.