“Everyone knows that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. But no one accepts the implications of this, everyone takes for granted that the law, such as it is, will be respected, and feels a sense of outrage when it is not.”
WHY LEGAL AID MATTERS
Legal aid in England and Wales was established in 1949 and provides legal assistance to people who would otherwise not be able to afford a lawyer or access to the courts. Legal aid also protects an individual against the risk of having to pay another side’s legal costs out of their own pocket, if the case is lost.
Individuals who have faced a wide range of legal problems have been supported by legal aid. Patrick Maguire, one of the Maguire Seven needed legal aid to clear his name after a huge miscarriage of justice left Patrick and his family wrongfully imprisoned for years.
Gyanendra Raj, a British Gurkha soldier who suffered life threatening injuries while serving Britain for over 13 years, relied on legal aid to challenge a government decision that he could not live here because he did not have “close connections to the UK”.
You can read more about how legal aid has been used here.
Legal aid is an integral part of the British justice system: by ensuring the right to legal advice for as many as possible, it safeguards equality before the law. Because legal aid allows powerful institutions such as the government or the police to be held to account – it also means a healthier democracy for all of us.
The absence of legal assistance has been recognised to undermine the effective protection of our basic rights – including the right to a fair trial, which is protected under Article 6 of the Human Rights Act.
WHAT LEGAL AID CAN HELP YOU WITH
In order to qualify for legal aid you will need to pass a financial test (i.e. you may need to show your income is low enough to qualify) and you may need to show that your case has ‘merit’ – that it has a good chance of success.
There are different types of legal aid available, depending upon what sort of legal problem you have. However, since a round of significant legal aid cuts in 2013, many of the below categories which legal aid covers have been drastically cut in scope:
Family law* Criminal law Housing and homelessness* Victims of trafficking & sexual offences
Prison law* Abuse of powers by public authorities & immigration detention authorities Inquests
Mental health & community care Employment* Clinical negligence* Debt* Asylum
Education* Welfare benefits* Judicial Review (challenge to government decisions)
Care, supervision and child abuse cases
* Now excluded: most private family cases except those involving evidenced domestic violence, child abuse or abduction; large swathes of prison law relating to legal assistance with resettlement, access to offending behaviour courses, and challenges against prison conditions and treatment in prison; housing disputes other than serious disrepair, homelessness or anti-social behaviour; all employment cases other than cases which involve a contravention of the Equality Act 2010 or if the claim arises in relation to the exploitation of an individual who is a victim of human trafficking; clinical negligence for all cases other than where an infant has suffered neurological injury resulting in them being severely disabled during pregnancy, child birth or the 8 week postnatal period; debt cases where there is no risk to the home; welfare benefits for anything other than appeals to the upper tribunal or higher courts; immigration; and education (except special needs cases), removing advice from 650,000 people.
WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
In recent years the Government has repeatedly sought to reduce spending on legal aid and to restrict its scope.
This comes at a time when lawyers face ever increasing demand for legal assistance from those with little or no money who desperately need it, particularly in times of economic hardship. It is estimated that over 2 million people each year receive legal aid of some sort.
Legal aid “deserts” have emerged across the country in key areas of law, such as mental health, as firms can no longer afford to offer these services. Many firms have given up their criminal legal aid practices raising serious concerns about increased risks of miscarriages of justice.
In recent months, members of the judiciary have also begun voicing concerns that legal aid reforms are threatening the ability of the courts to deliver fair hearings. In May 2014 a decision was made by a judge to halt a fraud trial because of a lack of specialist criminal barristers prepared to take on the work, know as Operation Cotton. In June a family law case was stopped when a senior family law judge invited the Secretary of State to resolve an impasse caused by the fact that one party’s right to a fair hearing was threatened by the absence of legal aid.
Before the recent rounds of legal aid cuts, and as far back as 2009, the average salary of a legal aid lawyer was £25,000, less than a prison officer or a sewage plant worker. In 2013, MPs heard that in some cases, junior criminal barristers will be paid less than £14 a day – well below minimum wage after the Government’s criminal fee reductions come into force.
This contrasts sharply with the mythical legal aid ‘fat cats’ often described in the press.