The impact of cuts to legal aid on access to justice

13th December 2018

Written by Eliza Esiategiwa, Assistant Litigation Executivat Fletchers Solicitors. 

The legal aid funded civil law sector has been plagued by funding cuts since the mid-2000s. Between 2006 and 2009, legal aid was imperilled to a new fixed-fee system by the government. This was followed in 2011 by a 10% cut in fee rates across all legal aid services .  The cuts enforced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012 came into effect on the 1st April 2013.[1] The introduction of this Act was aimed at cutting the legal aid budget by £350 million mainly in areas of clinical negligence, immigration and family law. The cuts were announced despite opposition from the public, the legal profession, law society and the House of Lords.   In addition, it added that in no win, no fee agreements the losing side no longer pays the success fee, claimants would now pay it out of their damages.[2]

21st century Britain has a growing number of people who are unable to defend themselves; between 2009 – 2010, more than 470,000 people received advice or assistance for social welfare services issues, but by 2013 – 2014, after the government’s reform to legal aid, the number of people seeking legal advice had fallen to less than 53,000 – a drop of nearly 90%. [3] It is apparent after the enactment of this Act that the cuts were neither beneficial nor proportionate and it has hindered access to justice for a large group of people who are mostly vulnerable.  The government is currently undertaking a review into the effects of LASPO into the legal aid system, which is expected to be published by the end of 2018; we look forward to this review.

Britain’s most senior judge Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd stated recently  “our justice system has become unaffordable to most.”[4]  Therefore, the notion of access to justice seeks to emphasize that it is an imperative that the system needs to be challenged. The system has shifted to economic needs i.e. the narrative that legal aid cuts are unavoidable rather than focussing on the narrative that legal advice/aid is a necessity in a civilised society. [5]

According to a recent BBC investigation, it has found that up to a million people live in areas with no legal aid provision for housing, with a further 15 million in areas with one provider. Richard Miller, head of justice at the Law Society, states that legal advice across England and Wales was “disappearing, creating legal aid deserts.”[6]

The impact of the cuts to legal aid involves the shift in government policy – the decline in social regard for the welfare of the community and individual needs. Policy restrictions in legal aid, changes in government policy combined with punitive law and order agendas will damage the fundamental understandings of due process and the rule of law – the underlying basis of access to justice.[7]  The conservation of the rule of law rest on the power of all people to have basic equality of access to the law. “If some cannot access justice because it is beyond their means, then the rule of law everywhere suffers.”[8]

To conclude, the impact of cuts to legal in aid has led to a mounting crisis in our justice system. The importance of legal aid to access to justice was captured by Amnesty, “Legal aid gives a voice to the unheard and light to those overlooked. Without legal aid the marginalised are kept in the shadows. They cannot be seen and they cannot be heard.”[9]

 

[1] Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012

[2] Access to Justice: A Comparative Analysis of Cuts to Legal Aid

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jan/16/legal-aid-review-lack-of-access-to-justice

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jan/16/legal-aid-review-lack-of-access-to-justice

[5] Access to Justice: A Comparative Analysis of Cuts to Legal Aid

[6] Legal aid advice network ‘decimated’ by funding cuts

[7] Access to Justice: A Comparative Analysis of Cuts to Legal Aid

[8] http://thejusticegap.com/2016/11/labour-lambasts-government-access-justice-crisis-following-legal-aid-cuts/

[9] Sarah Sadek of Avon and Bristol Law Centre: http://thejusticegap.com/2016/11/labour-lambasts-government-access-justice-crisis-following-legal-aid-cuts/

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