Legal Aid is part of the welfare state, along with the NHS, pensions and education. It was created after the Second World War, as “the fourth pillar of the welfare state”. It’s there to ensure access to justice and legal representation, subject to your means, for anyone appearing before the civil courts in relation to housing , family, immigration and employment matters, and provides representation by a lawyer for anyone accused of a crime.
Anyone arrested in the UK is entitled to free and independent legal advice day or night. No matter who you, are you can call out an on-call solicitor, from an independent solicitors’ firm, funded by the government, who’ll come and advise you. A police station is a very lonely, frightening place and its important to have someone there to ensure that you don’t unintentionally make a statement you don’t intend to make, or admit to something you haven’t done. Sometimes the level of questioning by police can cause an individual to be suggestible to provide the answers that the police want.
The government are always looking for cuts in legal aid but the 2013 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), has had a serious effect on legal aid. There have been huge cuts in the areas of civil law, crime and welfare. There were 82,542 welfare benefit cases in 2012/2013. In 2015 there were 254.
Households with a disposable income of over £3,000 a month are now no longer eligible for legal aid. Asylum seekers and prisoners no longer receive legal aid. All family law cases that don't involve domestic violence are no longer covered. Most benefits, debt and housing cases are ineligible. Criminal cases are subject to means testing. Solicitors fees have been cut. Access to justice in the police station has been cut by restricting the number of lawyers on call.
“Anyone eligible for legal aid is now subject to a strict means test, judged by a bureaucrat behind a computer.”
One effect is that there’s been a huge spike in people appearing before civil courts without representation, or having what’s know as McKenzie’s friends basically non-legally qualified people, who go to court to speak for their clients. This slows down the process of the courts, because these people are not trained lawyers, who know the system. That, in turn, increases costs, so it becomes a false economy.
Many cases are now so poorly funded that lawyers are turning them down. These are cases where the stakes are particularly high - a couple of years in prison - but the amount of work involved is just not covered by the fees, which sometimes amounts to £300 per case, the equivalent of one hour’s work for a private city lawyer. Solicitors are saying, I can’t provide a proper service anymore, which means the only solicitors willing to help become the big factory firms who run cases on a conveyer belt, a bit like insurance claims companies, where a lawyer only has an hour with each case, and the client doesn't know who he’s dealing with, or whether he can trust them.
Also, anyone eligible for legal aid is now subject to a strict means test. These are real people with real problems, a lot of whom live chaotic lives and now their eligibility is judged by a bureaucrat behind a computer at the legal aid agency, and if they haven’t ticked all the correct boxes they don't qualify.
If an individual does not qualify for legal aid and is required to pay privately and are then found not guilty , they will only be able to recoup a small proportion of the costs that they have spent on clearing their name. We call it a tax on justice. Legal aid should not be means tested. The cuts are also ideological, because cases in the criminal courts, and sometimes the civil courts, involve challenging the authority of the state.
Conviction rates at the moment look good, don't they? Well, with proper representation you don't get those conviction rates. These legal aid cuts are putting blockers on people, stopping them from making challenges to autocratic decisions made by public authorities. That stamps down on the ordinary person. The government is quite happy to see people no longer empowered. That’s why it’s vital that we protect legal aid. It matters for everyone.