Earlier this decade the government, following a so-called consultation and after ignoring overwhelming opposition, announced reforms that would have a fundamental and deleterious effect on a service vital to public confidence in the justice system. The warnings as to the disastrous effects of the reforms were many, were carefully argued by those with proper knowledge of the service and sadly have been proved correct.
This narrative will be depressingly familiar to readers, but in this article we are not talking about probation reforms but reforms to legal aid in criminal and civil law.
Since reforms to legal aid, brought about by the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, many areas of law have been taken out of scope leaving the public without legal advice or representation. Even where legal aid is in scope, new means testing rules mean that only 20% of the population is now eligible as compared to 80% when legal aid was first introduced. Many working people and families, who are by no means well off and can’t afford lawyers, are now nevertheless not eligible for legal aid.
Lack of early advice has been identified as a huge issue. Without it tenants can`t access legal advice before court proceedings are started, which end up being more costly in the end. Taking away legal aid for welfare benefits, for example, means that initial problems about help with rent that could be easily resolved with early advice, instead lead to costly court proceedings and families can face eviction for non-payment of rent.
The strain is showing in family cases where ex-partners increasingly face each other without lawyers causing unnecessary distress and taking up extra court time.
But even beyond that, cuts have meant that advice deserts have sprung up around the country, and it has become increasingly difficult for people who are eligible, and have a case that is in scope to find solicitors to represent them. Research carried out by the Law Society that shows that within five years there won`t be any criminal defence solicitors in some areas, including the whole of Wales, as they will have retired and not been replaced by younger lawyers. “Public access to justice and the right to a fair trial has never been so restricted,” the President of the Law Society warned on the eve of the deadline for the review on legal aid.
Just as NAPO has identified low morale and chronic staff shortages as being an outcome of the probation reforms so legal aid lawyers are fighting demoralisation and low recruitment in the legal aid sector.
What can we do?
We need to work together. It`s not just about legal aid cuts but public service cuts across the board – and they bite hardest for those who have least. Closing the courts and job centres; reduction or removal of public transport in rural locations; the introduction of welfare reform and the rise of foodbank, and disastrous reforms to the probation service. The effects of these deeply harmful policies are clear and gaining publicity.
We need to stick the pieces of the cuts together and start painting the whole picture that shows the true effect and false economy of these damaging policies.
Sue James & Simon Mullings
Justice Alliance UK