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Legal aid reforms: a denial of justice?

Stephen Hunt - Law on the Web

  1. 17 April 2015
  2. Miscellaneous
  3. 0 comments
Sepia-toned money

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, commonly known as LASPO, dealt a hammer blow to legal aid in the UK. The terms of the act cut the legal aid budget by £320m in its first year and will continue to cut into it by a further £220m every year until 2018. 

The obstacles to securing legal aid

These cuts have left legal aid unavailable for large swathes of cases For example, in family law, legal aid is now only available if there is evidence of domestic violence, forced marriage or abduction, excluding many such victims who are deemed to not have sufficient evidence. Other cases which are no longer eligible include employment, clinical negligence and most housing law.

With this restriction and the hurdles that must be overcome to be granted a legal aid certificate – even if the case falls within an eligible field of law, a merits test and a means test must be passed – it is far from easy to secure help with legal funding.

A cost worth bearing?

The Ministry of Justice maintains that savings need to be made in the legal aid budget – it said that before the reforms that we had one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, and that it would still be very generous following the cuts.

But it is doubtful that legal aid is fulfilling its original aim of giving access to justice to those who cannot afford it – or at least, the degree to which it is making a difference must be diminishing. And with more vulnerable people finding themselves without legal representation, there have to be concerns about justice not being done.

Voices of opposition

Solicitors have voiced their concerns over the potential impact of the cuts. According to the Law Society’s Access to Justice campaign, “there can be no effective rule of law when we lack a fully accessible and affordable judicial system”.

And after a recent challenge to the cuts on the grounds that they will leave people accused of crimes with inadequate access to legal advice was lost, the president of the Law Society Andrew Caplen said: "Access to legal advice is a fundamental human right, the absence of which undermines our society.

"We consider there to be an unacceptably increased risk that those accused of crimes, some of whom are the most vulnerable in our society, will have inadequate access to legal representation."

Judges have also moved to express their concerns. Speaking with respect to a case where an illiterate mother of four with poor sight and hearing was made to represent herself in a child custody case, senior family judge Louise Hallam said: “If legal aid is being refused to people such as this, I am satisfied that injustices will occur”.

It is hard to argue with such a sentiment. Whether the cacophony of discontent that the legal aid reform has brought about will compel the government to change its plans and look to other areas where money can be saved remains to be seen.

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