Earlier this year, Justice Secretary Michael Gove announced that planned cuts to the legal aid system were to be shelved. This was some relief to both the legal profession and to people facing substantial bills for court cases, but it didn’t reverse the swingeing cuts brought in three years ago.
What Is Legal Aid?
It’s a basic principle of our legal system that justice should be available to everyone, but it usen’t to be easy if you didn’t have money. In 1949, legal aid was introduced, providing legal representation at the state’s expense, usually from small, specialist law firms.
It was initially available for most civil cases and criminal defendants, but this has been gradually cut back by imposing limits. Under the cuts introduced in 2013, you can only receive legal aid if your household’s disposable income is less than £3,000.
Why Is Legal Aid Being Cut?
Both these and the currently shelved additional cuts are part of the government’s overall cost-cutting programme, seeking to reduce the £2bn legal aid bill by £350m.
This has been justified by the idea of “fat-cat” lawyers getting rich on legal aid at the state’s expense. The response is that few rich lawyers take legal aid cases, and the sector’s average salary is just £25,000.
What Legal Aid Is Still Available?
For civil cases, the 2013 cuts reduced the range legal aid is available for. Areas no longer funded include:
- Most family law cases, such as divorce and custody.
- Many personal injury and clinical negligence cases.
- Many employment cases.
- Immigration cases, unless they involve asylum requests or people-trafficking.
- Debt, housing and benefit cases, unless you’re at risk of homelessness.
What Are the Effects of the Cuts?
I’m obviously most concerned with the effect on debt cases. Many creditors can no longer afford litigation, and small creditors find it even harder to reclaim debts from larger organisations. A wide range of people are affected, though, and the Law Society estimates that 600,000 people have lost their right to representation.
With few other options, there are increasing signs of people representing themselves in court. Quite apart from reducing their chances of winning, this tends to make cases longer and more expensive, eating into the government’s savings.
It’s also having a profound effect on the small law firms and law centres that provide legal aid. Many have already closed, limiting the public’s options for seeking legal advice. The U-turn on the new cuts will offer some breathing-space, but conditions are still getting more difficult. And there’s no knowing when more cuts will be announced.