Over recent years, there have been severe cuts to the legal aid budget, whilst the cost of court fees has steadily risen.
While savings to the legal aid budget have been made, the wider impacts and consequences are not being measured and the National Audit Office, Public Accounts Committee and Justice Select Committee have all criticised the government for its lack of understanding of the knock-on costs and value for money of its reforms.
Legal aid was first introduced in 1949, as a principal pillar of the welfare state. Administered on the basis of a means test, it looked at a client’s income and capital, and a merit test, which examined their chances of winning in civil cases, and weighed up the seriousness of the charges in criminal cases.
Originally, its reach was almost universal with 80% of British people eligible. But as the years have gone by, eligibility has been dropping, making it harder for those who are in genuine need of legal support and advice. In 2009-10, over 470,000 people received advice or assistance for social welfare issues. By 2013-14, the year after the government’s reforms to legal aid came into force, that number decreased to less than 53,000 – a drop of almost 90%.
Huge areas of civil law have been removed from the scope of legal aid. All family law cases that don’t involve domestic violence are no longer covered. Immigration cases are only covered if they involve claims for asylum, human rights issues or domestic violence. Benefits, debt and housing cases are also ineligible, unless there is a direct threat of homelessness. Criminal cases remain in scope, subject to means testing. Up until a very recent court of appeal judgment, victims of domestic abuse had to produce evidence that the abuse had occurred in the past two years, in order to apply for legal aid.
This left many having to face their abusers in court without legal representation, with the only other options being to privately pay for their lawyer’s fees or simply doing nothing and remaining in a dangerous situation.
Amidst the growing concern over legal aid, Labour began its review into the future of legal aid in September 2015. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn stated:
“I have asked Willy Bach, the former Shadow Attorney General, to undertake an immediate review of the assault on Legal Aid by the Government over the last five years. This has resulted in many of our fellow citizens, often the poor and marginalised, not being able to get advice or representation when they are faced with legal problems such as housing, welfare benefits, debt and employment. Many vital advice services, including Law Centres, have had to close.”
The current Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove, has talked about the need to deliver a “one-nation justice system” which delivers access to all. Yet a Citizens’ Advice research report found that only 39% of people believe the justice system works well for citizens and only 17% believe it’s easy for people on low incomes to access justice.
The success of our society relies on the trust we have in the rule of law, as well as the belief that our courts are fulfilling their role and ensuring this a secure system in place to enforce our rights, when needed. However, this trust is unfortunately dwindling as it becomes more evident that the core features of the rule of law are being chipped away.
Whilst it may not be clear how far these cuts will go, one thing is clear; access to justice is being denied for those who need it most.
For information on any legal advice help and support you are entitled to, follow these local links and organisations who can support you: