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Why legal aid matters and what you can do about it

Cuts to legal aid are causing widespread injustice and likely costing the taxpayer more. The government are reviewing the cuts. We have a final chance to tell them we care.

Between 2010 and 2016, the Coalition government reduced the budget of the Ministry of Justice by 34%. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) brought swingeing cuts to legal aid, ending financial support for those who rely on vast areas of social welfare law – including most debt, benefits, housing, employment and immigration advice.

The result was an 84% reduction in the number of civil (non-criminal) cases funded by legal aid. Hundreds of thousands of people each year are now denied access to justice as a result of the cuts to legal aid.

As well as partially or wholly removing significant areas of the law from scope, LASPO also increased the financial eligibility thresholds. This means that even when a case is theoretically covered by legal aid – indicating that a person’s situation must be serious – they may not be eligible, even if they are living well below the poverty line. If someone has equity in their home this now counts towards what is considered to be disposable capital.

Our society is in a sorry state if a person must sell their home or sacrifice their ability to maintain a reasonable standard of living in order to enforce their basic rights.

To document the impact that this change has had on people’s lives, openJustice is marking this year’s Justice Week with the launch of Voices for Justice, a new series of short films and articles demonstrating the impact of the legal aid cuts.

The government are currently reviewing the cuts. This might be our last chance to tell them that legal aid matters.

Voices for Justice begins with the story of Eleanor Peterson who fell victim to the toxic combination of Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ measures and the dramatic legal aid cuts. Eleanor’s case was part of the Windrush scandal, which involved the Home Office wrongfully withholding legal rights from long-term UK residents. The lack of legal aid contributed to the Windrush scandal by making it difficult for the people involved to assert their rights or protect themselves from wrongdoing.

There are thousands of others, whose stories are not high profile but are as compelling and shocking as those in Windrush. They are suffering in silence, struggling to get justice.

Impact

Research from the Justice Select Committee, Amnesty International, the Law Society and the Bach Commission has shone a light on the impact that the legal aid cuts are having on individuals. These reports show that the cuts are compromising the life, health and liberty of many people in England and Wales. Amnesty concluded that “in human rights terms, the cuts to legal aid constitute a retrogressive measure”.

Many senior lawyers, judges, politicians and researchers believe that our justice system is in crisis. The Bach Commission on Access to Justice, set up by Labour, concluded that LASPO has “seriously damaged the functioning of the justice system, especially for those most in need”.

There appears to be a growing recognition within the Conservative party that the cuts have been harmful and, in some areas, actively counterproductive by creating additional costs to the courts and other parts of the state. Bob Neill, the chair of the Justice Select Committee, recently said that LASPO "went too far".

A false economy

The Public Accounts Committee report on reforms to civil legal aid was heavily critical of the government. It observed that the Ministry of Justice “does not know whether the reduction in spending on civil legal aid is outweighed by additional costs in other parts of the public sector as a result of the reforms”. Adding that perhaps this is because the MoJ “gathered little evidence before implementation and did not make good use of the information that it did have”.

Without a lawyer’s support, many situations escalate until they end up costing the government more than the previous legal aid provision would have. For example, simple housing health and safety claims, when unaddressed by people who cannot afford legal advice, often now turn into healthcare situations, costing the NHS and the government far more than the original legal aid.

The Grenfell tragedy is a chilling example of what can happen when free legal advice is not given before a housing repair issue poses a serious risk to health and safety. This is why the Law Society and others are calling for the government to reinstate legal aid for early advice. This might be the area where the government are most likely to relent.

Advice deserts

Even when people are entitled and financially eligible for publicly funded advice, they are having problems finding it.

A lawyer recently said “when you throw a lawyer in the air, they will land on their feet”. Although the legal aid cuts have affected the livelihoods of lawyers, they have the skills and know-how to shift their focus and find other ways to earn a living. As lawyers transition, entire regions of the country are being left with no free legal advice at all, even for cases that are still in scope. Access to justice should not be a postcode lottery or depend on whether you have a car to travel long distances to an area with legal aid advice.

Some areas now do not have a single lawyer providing advice on matters such as housing and immigration. John Nicholson of Greater Manchester Law Centre told us: "at the last count, there is no legal aid provider for immigration or asylum in Lancashire, a county to which the home office is increasingly dispersing applicants because much of the housing is poor (and therefore cheap)". People in these areas simply have nowhere to go to resolve their problems. This means doctors, mental health services, local authorities and other public services will be taking up the slack.

These cuts are having a dramatic impact on our constitution as democracy and the rule of law are undermined. As the Supreme Court recently pointed out, without unimpeded access to the courts:

"laws are liable to become a dead letter, the work done by Parliament may be rendered nugatory, and the democratic election of Members of Parliament may become a meaningless charade."

You might be thinking that all of this begs the question: Who benefits? It’s not the hardworking families of Britain, the squeezed middle or the just-about-managing. First, it’s the state. The state – including local authorities, the police and government departments – becomes less accountable to its citizens when their ability to challenge the lawfulness of its conduct is reduced. And second, it’s the landlords, the employers, the men who trap women in abusive relationships: those who abuse positions of power, against whom the law is supposed to protect us.

The cumulative impact of these measures, as well as curtailing access to justice and weakening human rights, is to make it more difficult to hold the powerful to account. Concern about this should unite us all.

Over the coming months we will be publishing more films featuring the stories of individuals who have suffered under these cuts. If you have a story that you would like to share please email charlotte.threipland@opendemocracy.net.

Now is the time to tell the government that we care. Please take three minutes to write to the Lord Chancellor, sign this petition and write to your MP.  

About the authors

Oliver Carter is a solicitor in the Public Law and Human Rights team at Irwin Mitchell LLP and co-chair of Young Legal Aid Lawyers, a group which campaigns for access to justice and social mobility in the legal aid sector.

Charlotte is a lawyer, researcher and campaigner and Editor of openJustice. From working on death penalty cases in Louisiana to unveiling the housing conditions of vulnerable migrant children living in London, Charlotte's work focuses on using the law, investigation and advocacy to help marginalised individuals hold larger powers to account.


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