UK Legal Aid System, Put Simply

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By Campaign Agent Elizabeth Kolawole

The long awaited Government review of changes to the UK’s Legal Aid system, introduced under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 was announced by the current Minister of Justice Sir Oliver Heald QC at an all-party parliamentary group meeting in January 2017. This announcement comes four years after the legislation, commonly known as ‘LASPO’, came into effect and removed many areas of social welfare law from civil legal aid funding.

The Government’s decision in 2012 to change the provision of Legal Aid was in response to growing public concern regarding Government spending at a time when the nation’s fiscal deficit was at an all-time high.

The Lord Chancellor at the time said “legal aid is the hallmark of a fair, open justice system. Unfortunately, over the past decade, the system has lost much of its credibility with the public. Taxpayers money has been used to pay for frivolous claims, to foot the legal bills of wealthy criminals, and to cover cases which run on and on racking up large fees for a small number of lawyers”.

In further support of the Lord Chancellor’s claim, Kenneth Clare, the then Minister of Justice, stated, that ‘the legal aid system as it was affordable, was not sustainable for the current fiscal climate’.

This view of frivolous spending on wealthy defendants who could otherwise foot the bill themselves and a lack of public confidence in the system formed the basis of the Government’s proposals to change the structure of Legal Aid – the hope being that people would use alternative, less adversarial means of resolution rather than heading to the courts.

What is Legal Aid?

Legal Aid funds solicitors and agencies to advise people on their legal problems, and if necessary represent people in court. The public fund was first introduced in 1949 as part of the development of the welfare state to ensure a fair democratic society with universal access to justice through the courts. At the time of inception, Legal Aid broadly attained this aim, with 80% of British people eligible to receive the funding.

Up until 2012, Legal Aid supported a variety of cases including, family cases where there is no proof of domestic violence, immigration cases not involving asylum or detention, employment matters, housing, debt and welfare benefit cases. The provision of Legal Aid was seen as a fundamental pillar of the UK’s legal system, the generous size of the Legal Aid budget reflected this.

Post LASPO

Following LASPO, Legal Aid was significantly reduced in both its funding by central government and the areas of law in which legal aid lawyers could provide advice and representation. Legal Aid is now restricted to cases where people’s life or liberty is at stake, where there is serious physical harm, or immediate loss of their home, or where their children may be taken into care.

The advice sector, leading human rights charities, solicitors, barristers and their regulatory bodies strongly opposed these cuts; highlighting in a series of reports, how reduced funding has left the most vulnerable people navigating the complex and often confusing processes in the justice system without proper guidance or representation. Such people often referred to as Litigants in Persons (LiPs) have been the topic of wider debate regarding whether the cuts have harmed their access to justice and right to a fair trial.

A recent report by Amnesty International UK concluded that LASPO was a retrogressive measure that had created a “two-tiered” structure for access to justice in England & Wales; that it limited access to justice to those who can afford to payable to afford legal fees, and increasingly closed such recourse to justice for the poorest and most vulnerable.

In announcing the Government’s timetable for the review, Sir Oliver Heald added [it] ‘will provide us with a robust evidence-based picture of the current Legal Aid landscape and how it’s changed since LASPO’. For those advocating against the imposition of the funding cuts this is positive news; however, further assessment is necessary to evaluate the multiple effects of the legislation upon society, with the review’s final outcome/s scheduled to be published in April 2018.

Sources

Image rights: Roger Blackwell @ Flickr

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