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Legal aid matters

Legal aid is 70 years old today. We need to celebrate it's past and campaign for it's future.

Simon Mullings
30 July 2019
Legal aid was introduced alongside the other great reforms of the post war period which gave us the NHS, public education and welfare support.
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Justice Alliance. All rights reserved.

On this day 70 years ago the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949 came into force. As an organisation that campaigns to promote access to justice, the Justice Alliance wants to mark the occasion. Particularly because since 2013 legal aid has faced swingeing cuts in scope and the extent to which people can access it.

So we have produced a pamphlet Legal Aid Matters which contains short summaries of 70 legal aid cases that have changed or contributed to our understanding of the law. Contributions came from notable and interesting figures from the law, academia, the legal aid client base and campaigners. Our purpose is to showcase the history of legal aid and tell it's stories.

First, it's history. The 1949 act sits firmly within the context of the great reforms of the post war settlement – the 1944 Education Act, the 1946 National Health Service Act, the 1948 National Assistance Act and others. It is the forgotten pillar of the welfare state.

Each of the case summaries we have published illustrate how legal aid has been of invaluable assistance to individuals who have had recourse to it or have helped to establish a principle from which many others have benefited.

Lawyer Sue James said this about the case Webb v EMO Air Cargo (UK) Ltd [1995] 1 WLR 1454:

Carole Webb was sacked for becoming pregnant. The Court of Appeal held that she was to be compared with a man who was unable to work because of sickness and therefore her dismissal was lawful. The House of Lords referred the case to the European Court of Justice which replied that a pregnant woman was not to be compared with a sick man, as pregnancy was not a disease and the claim was decided in her favour. The case was important for women everywhere and could not have been taken without legal aid. It is still being cited in the Supreme Court.

But then something else happened. As more cases arrived and as we started to lay them out in the pamphlet, these condensed case summaries started to take on a different aspect. It turns out that when you distil long complex court judgments down to no more than 150 words and lay them out together they start to look like a collection of folk tales.

What are folk tales? They are stories that communities tell themselves, often to mark the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, freedoms, obligations, and what the consequences are of not doing right by the community. In folk tales, where there is persecution of the weak by the strong, the weak often find justice in the end.

And so we like to see Legal Aid Matters also as an anthology of folk tales. For the legal aid community these cases are our folk tales, our ethical songlines and our morality fables.

But the cases contained in the pamphlet also invite us to imagine what the state of the law and justice in the UK might be if these cases were not taken.

Imagine if the principles outlined by these cases brought with legal aid were not argued. Imagine if development of the law was purely advanced by those who could afford to do so. Could there then be any pretence that we lived in any kind of equal and just society?

Devastating news of the closure of Lambeth Law Centre recently reminds us that at this moment legal aid is in a precarious position. Behind the cases in the pamphlet already lies the absence of the cases that never happened because of areas of law like employment and welfare benefits been being taken out of scope of legal aid. The means testing and contribution rules for legal aid amount to a virtual hostile environment for applicants for legal aid. This map produced by the Law Society reveals a dearth of legal aid providers leaving advice deserts and whole regions bereft of access to justice.

So while this pamphlet seeks to celebrate what has been achieved through legal aid it must also stand as a rallying cry to fight for legal aid to ensure a fair and just society. We must find more ways to tell these stories that illustrate how legal aid is like a National Health Service for society. It cares for the rights and freedoms of all individuals and communities. It provides emergency attention when those rights are under attack. It vaccinates society against the excesses of state and other power. And it promotes a healthy, just, civic society by providing advice and education about all citizens’ and all communities’ rights.

So we must fight to protect and renew legal aid. We must spread the word and tell the story that legal aid is a crucial pillar of the welfare state, is essential to a fair and just society, and that legal aid matters.

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