In this country we have a proud tradition of justice. In 1949 the then Labour government (at a time of great economic stringency, as it was just after the war) set up the legal aid system. No one, it was said, should be denied access to justice or legal help because they cannot afford it.
We are now once again in a time of great economic stringency. However the current conservative government is using this as an excuse to dismantle the system of legal aid which has served over the years to protect the poor and vulnerable.
The gravy train myth
The cuts to legal aid are often portrayed by the press as being a well deserved punishment to ‘fat cat’ lawyers riding a gravy train funded by public money. However the reality is that many lawyers working in this area barely have enough to fund their expenses.
When I first started work as a lawyer, almost every firm did legal aid. Since then the number has gone down dramatically, and now it is often hard for a client to find a legal aid solicitor at all. Would this be the case if legal aid were a gravy train?
The legal brain drain
The main reason the profession is leaving legal aid in droves is the oppressive administration and low fees. All right for those individual firms and solicitors – they are now earning more money doing something else. But who is left to act for those vulnerable clients who need them?
Most of the areas of practice covered by legal aid are complex and difficult. Family and child care work. Mental health. Immigration. Human rights. Housing. It takes time and experience to develop an expertise in these often difficult legal fields. If the solicitors are starved of funding and have to turn to other work, their knowledge and experience will be lost.
Local authority cuts and the NFP sector
Then there are the problems being experienced by the not for profit section. Most of these are funded largely by local authorities, and we all know what huge budget cuts they are going to have to cope with. Already there are reports of advice centres closing in Birmingham.
Not for profit may be less expensive because they are not out to make a profit and often use unpaid volunteers. However they are not free to run, and cannot exist without proper funding.
Their lawyers for example may be willing to work for a lower salary than they might get elsewhere but they still need to be paid. They have their mortgages to pay, and families to support the same as the rest of us.
Making matters worse
To add insult to injury, these cuts are unlikely to result in overall savings. The people with the problems will not go away simply because no-one will be able to give them legal representation.
The most likely outcome will be that problems which might have been resolved had they been given proper legal help, will simply get worse, which will impact negatively both on society and the national purse. People who are desperate often do desperate things.
Then there is the more sinister element which is that taking away legal funding will often take away peoples ability to challenge government decisions. Nice for government of course …
What can you do?
The Law Society is so concerned about these matters that it has set up a campaign, and a website called Sound off for Justice. If you are bothered by the prospect of millions of people being denied justice, I suggest you take a look at it. You will find links to news articles which give more detail on exactly what is happening and there is a petition you can sign.
If you want more detail there is also a lot of information on the Justice for All web-site.