Despite Legal Aid being the lesser appreciated pillar of the welfare state, it is no less important. Yet, despite its importance for those normally locked out of the justice system and denied their rights, in 2013 the Government undertook one of the most extensive changes to Legal Aid in its 60 plus year history.
Established by a Labour Government in 1949, it is an important foundation of the welfare state that ensures that those in need, those who are vulnerable and those who are downtrodden are not forgotten.
Their cuts and changes callously tossed this aside.
In doing so, as it has done with the other foundations of the welfare state in the name of austerity – our NHS, education system and social security safety net – the Tory Government has cut it back and left it as a shadow of its former self.
Just as we warned back then, cuts and changes have wreaked untold destruction on our legal system. They have been nothing short of devastating, and they have been extensive.
The number of Civil Legal Aid cases have plummeted by three quarters, and the number receiving state-funded legal help have fallen even further – down 99.5%, a figure the Government itself acknowledged.
It has betrayed the very principle of Legal Aid – to allow individuals, regardless of their wealth, to exercise their right to justice.
Access to Justice No Longer Exists
For many, access to Legal Aid no longer exists, their right to justice unachievable.
The family whose home is lined with mould, the result of damp and a dodgy landlord, is no longer able to hold their landlord to account for the state of their property. They either have to put up, or shut up and leave – for they not allowed Legal Aid until it is detrimental to their health.
The mother and father undergoing a difficult separation have to drag their children through a messy and emotionally damaging battle in the courts, because there is no longer an ability to access early legal help that would have prevented such a situation.
And the parent who has to choose between eating and heating to ensure their child does not go without, because of a flawed welfare decision, cannot challenge it.
Because the means test is preventing those in poverty from accessing Legal Aid.
Legal Aid is Inaccessible
For those who are entitled to access Legal Aid, the situation is little better. Just because they are allowed to access Legal Aid, does not mean that they can.
Because of the changes, for many legal professionals, supplying Legal Aid and working these cases is no longer viable, not because it no longer funds a ‘lavish lifestyle’ as the Government proclaims, but because it simply no longer gives them enough to make a living on.
Consequently, we have seen the emergence of Legal Aid deserts – areas where legal advice centres have dried up. Indeed, in Cornwall, it’s been reported that there is no Legal Aid solicitor in housing in the entire county.
If Legal Aid doesn’t exist nearby, if services are few and far between, it means a long journey to fulfil one of your most basic rights. For the vulnerable, the less well-off, the journey is simply too far, Legal Aid centres simply too inaccessible, and they forgo their right to justice as a result.
The lack of legal education amongst the general public in this regard does not help matters. People are simply unaware of the support that they are entitled to exercise their right – the Government knew this when it cut legal aid, but did nothing to expand the public’s knowledge and awareness.
Passed on costs elsewhere
Legal aid also doesn’t exist in its own bubble. The cuts have consequences beyond the Legal Aid budget. They create a knock on effect, and whilst there may be immediate reductions in expenditure on legal aid, the costs are passed on further down the road where they multiply. Problems that would initially have been solved with legal aid are now only being resolved months later.
It also incurs much greater costs for both the public purse in the long run, with expenses for lengthy court battles.
This is not good enough for the family in their squalid home, for the mother or father who cannot see their child, for the parent trying to make ends meet for their family.
Yet this is what the Government has created with its cuts.
It’s not good enough for them and it’s not good enough for our legal system, it undermines the access to justice and defies the legal system that we should expect.
The Tory Government knows that it’s failed
On all accounts, cuts to Legal Aid have been a failure and a disaster for the vulnerable. The Tory Government has removed legal aid for many, created Legal Aid deserts and passed on costs elsewhere in the justice system.
Quite frankly, the Tory Government knows that it has failed, which is why it is kicking this review along from one deadline to another.
The debate we should be having today should be on the Government’s review – we were supposed to have it by July, before Summer Recess, yet here we are months later.
The deadline now is for the end of 2018, but as with any deadline the Ministry of Justice sets itself, I won’t hold my breath.
Meanwhile, the Government has been hiding from conducting its own review for fear of what it will find.
What the Law Society, MIND, and Labour’s Bach Review have already found, is that the abolition of early advice was a false economy, that Legal Aid is no longer there for people who need it, and that it has hurt the vulnerable the most. There have been people unable to champion their right to justice.
Once the Government finally completes its review, it must do the right thing and correct the devastation that its changes caused, accepting its damaging mistakes.
It must restore access to early legal advice as the Law Society have pleaded.
Ultimately, the Government must return the right to justice that it has so cruelly snatched away and reverse the two-tier justice system that it has created.
Legal Aid must be restored.