Legal aid is a welfare provision for people who could otherwise not afford counsel from the legal system. Legal aid was originally established by the Legal Aid and Advice Act, 1949.
Legal aid is regarded as central in providing access to justice by ensuring equality before the law, the right to counsel and the right to a fair trial. Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that: “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.”
The United Nations state that this principle is particularly important to minorities and to the poor.
Everyone must be treated equally under the law regardless of their race, gender, national origin, color, ethnicity, religion, disability, or other characteristics, without privilege, discrimination, or bias.
Part 1 of LASPO has been in force for two years. In that time, many of our most vulnerable citizens have been unable to receive legal advice and assistance to help them with problems in areas of housing, debt, employment, immigration, and welfare benefits. Not only have they been deprived access to justice, but these problems are now being allowed the opportunity to escalate leading to possible greater costs when the state has to intervene. On top of this, eleven law centres have had to close, making it even more difficult for the poorest to get justice, and providers of social welfare law have declined in numbers, as without legal aid, both law centres and solicitors firms have been deprived of a large amount of income.
Two recent reports – one from the House of Commons Justice Select Committee, the other from the Public Accounts Committee – have carefully described the failings of the LASPO Act in convincing terms. The government is yet to indicate when it will respond to these reports. This was legislation which even the Permanent Secretary at Ministry of Justice conceded began without the usual preliminary research being done. It was just a way to save money and damn the consequences. Unfortunately the consequences are deadly serious for citizens, for providers and not least for the reputation of the English legal system.
It is time for a thorough review. My question in the Lords today will urge Ministers to instigate this at once. The ‘exceptional cases’ provision which was supposed to pick up cases that should receive legal aid but couldn’t because of the Act has failed miserably. The Minister of Justice estimate regarding how many exceptional cases there would be has proved laughably high.
Perhaps most disturbing of all is that in those few areas where legal aid is still available under the Act, the take-up has been decreasing.
This is nothing to do with lack of demand for advice. But with people just not knowing that support is still available. The Minister of Justices’ overall savings in this field have also exceeded expectation. Surely it is time to put some of that money back into helping people at a difficult time in their lives?
Social Welfare Law has moved a long way towards being destroyed. It is now time for the government to take stock and begin to restore what was only a few years ago one of the jewels in the crown of English Justice.
Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone.