Save Legal Aid

Why is legal aid important?
For 60 years legal aid has formed an integral part of the welfare state ensuring access to justice for those who cannot otherwise afford it. Without legal aid ordinary and vulnerable people would not be able to use the law to protect themselves and get fair outcomes. Legal aid is used not only to defend people accused of committing crimes, but also for many other things including preventing homelessness and helping vulnerable people receive the health and social services they need to live positive lives, and to which they are entitled.
Legal aid under threat
Legal aid accounts for just 0.04 per cent of the total government budget at a little over £2 billion. This relatively modest figure leaves many legal problems unresolved. Government research has shown that these unresolved problems have a knock on effect contributing to job losses and the burden on public services to provide health and social care services, benefits and accommodation. The cost of this unmet legal need has been estimated to be £4 billion – nearly twice the legal aid budget.
Despite this, legal aid is under threat. Since 2005 legal aid has been subject to repeated policy changes aimed at cutting costs and overhauling the system. The government has sought to justify the changes by reference to its increased spending on legal aid between 1997 and 2004 (from £1.5 billion to £2 billion), a large part of which has represented extra funds allocated for criminal defence work. These justifications take no account of the overwhelming rise in demand for legal aid services during this period, which is in part due to the creation of over 3,700 new criminal offences since 1997.
What are key the cuts and changes?
First, last summer the Ministry of Justice issued a consultation paper “Legal aid: refocusing on priority cases”, proposing funding changes for cases that challenge decision-making by public authorities. If implemented these proposals will threaten the ability of ordinary and vulnerable people to hold public bodies to account through the courts.
Second, Ministers have singled out legal aid as an area to target in order to reduce the Ministry of Justice’s total budget by £1 billion over the next three years. This assault on legal aid comes at a terrible time. The financial pressure on public bodies to cut costs is mounting, leaving less money to spend on housing and welfare and a greater temptation to cut corners. Legal aid is more important than ever in this economic climate to make sure that the right decisions are made so that it is not the most vulnerable members of society who come off worse.
Third, law firms’ fees for almost all work not related to crime is now paid to them as a fixed fee per case. This means the longer and more complicated a case, the less the firm will earn. The risk that this poses is that firms will not be able to afford to take on these cases, and that people with complex cases will be denied access to justice.
Fourth, there is a possibility that in future criminal law firms will have to bid competitively for the chance to take on legal aid work, driving down the amount paid per case, again making cases uneconomical. To keep their heads above water firms will have to spend less time on cases. At the same time there are specific plans to cut fees paid to criminal lawyers. The end result can only be a poorer quality service.
Fifth, the government has proposed slashing fees payable to expert witnesses in all cases, which many lawyers fear could affect the quality of legal representation – especially in criminal and family cases. Cases often turn on the quality of expert evidence and reduced fees will mean that the most suitably qualified experts will be less likely to offer their services.
Impact of cuts and changes to legal aid
The changes to legal aid are already undermining access to justice:
Cases capped: Some people are being denied access to justice altogether. This is because the government has capped the number of legally aided non-criminal cases that each law firm can take on. The quotas that have been set are insufficient and rigid. Recently, a young woman who was trafficked and made to work 16-hour days for five years, earning £86 per month, was unable to find a firm able to represent her to make sure she had the correct immigration status as all the firms she could find had filled their quota and were not therefore permitted to take on her case under legal aid.
Firms cannot survive: Legal aid is a unique public service in that has traditionally been provided by private, independent firms of solicitors. But while rates of pay have been frozen or reduced for the past ten years, the costs of running a practice have increased by around 60% in the same period. A report issued by the National Audit Office in November 2009 found that 1 in every 6 firms made no money from criminal legal aid in the last year. 14% of firms are reputedly on the verge of walking away, stating that they do not see themselves practising criminal legal aid in five years time – anecdotal evidence suggests that many have walked away already. The main reason given for this is that there is not enough money for it to be sustainable. Between 2003 and 2009, the number of firms providing housing law services under the legal aid scheme dropped from 799 to 362. This has led to advice deserts: whole areas of the country where there are no lawyers available to do legal aid work in certain areas of law such as mental health or housing.
Poor service for poor people: The Ministry of Justice’s own research has found that fixed fees are resulting in straightforward cases being preferred over complex ones by law firms, and that firms are increasingly using lawyers who are less experienced and are expecting them to manage huge volumes of casework. This means lower standards which directly impacts on the ability of legal aid clients to obtain a fair and just outcome.