Funding Legal Aid
Guaranteeing that our legal system is open to everyone is one of the central tenets on which it is built. In order for all the residents of this country to exercise their legal rights, nothing should impede access to the legal system – least of all a lack of finance. Grasping the consequences of a legal system all but closed to those who could not afford to exercise their rights, Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government introduced the Legal Aid and Legal Advice Act 1949, which created the legal aid system we have today.
But the post-war consensus of the state providing financial support to those who cannot afford their legal fees is quickly disintegrating. We are faced with an onslaught which threatens to undermine the doctrine of universal access to justice, with those whose access is most threatened being amongst the most vulnerable in society.
The coalition government’s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Bill will cut £350million from the £2.1billion budget for legal aid. These cuts will fall disproportionately on social welfare law – the kind of early stage legal advice and support provided by law centres, Citizen Advice Bureaus (CAB) and others on benefit issues, employment law, education law and housing issues.
This early intervention, while a financial outlay for the taxpayer, ultimately results in savings further down the line. Preventing sometimes small legal problems escalating into much greater issues of the kind that would necessitate a greater call on the resources of central and local government will thus spare the public purse in the long run. In fact, according to research by the CAB, every £1 spent on legal aid on housing issues saves the state £2.34, on debt the saving is £2.98, employment advice the state saves £7.13, and benefits the saving reaches £8.80. The cuts are nothing but short-sighted and short-termist.
As a result, we also face the real prospect of losing our precious network of law centres and CABs. Their already stretched budgets face further cuts – combined with a likely rise in demand for their services at a time of economic uncertainty. As well as the devastating social impact of these cuts, Members of Parliament should be further troubled by the impact on their own workloads. Constituency surgeries – already strained through the weight of demand in many areas – will become swamped with residents armed with carrier bags of legal documents, with no where left to turn and with MPs left without any law centre network to direct constituents for legal support. As a result of this chaos, and as senior law lords have warned, our courts system runs the risk of grinding to a halt due to a surge in litigants in person – more people representing themselves in court because of an inability to afford legal representation.
I recognise that cuts need to be made. When Labour was in government, we managed to stem the inexorable rise in the total legal aid budget but simultaneously strived to protect social welfare law because of its importance to the most vulnerable in society. For example, our proposals in March 2010 would have delivered 10% efficiency savings, sufficient to have continued funding social welfare law. This more efficient contracting of legal services from solicitors has bizarrely not been implemented by the coalition government.
Similarly, other stakeholders have proposed alternative savings in the legal aid budget all of which have been dismissed out of hand by the coalition government. Justice for All, the Law Society and the Bar Council have all put forward options for efficiencies in the legal aid budget, and the cross-party Justice Select Committee proposed the option of the ‘polluter pays’ model for government departments that create the greatest demand for legal aid as a result of their particular areas of policy. Instead of this proposal being rightly explored in more detail, it was swatted away by the government.
Decimating social welfare legal aid is an assault on our post-war welfare state and dismantles the notion of equality for all in the face of justice. Moreover, government claims of remaining committed to protecting society’s most vulnerable have been shown to be hollow – the Ministry of Justice’s own impact assessment demonstrated that women, ethnic communities and those with disabilities will be hit the hardest.
Proposals to cut legal aid were consulted on earlier this year and the government received over 5,000 submissions, with the overwhelming response being one of opposition. Despite this – and in the face of alternative proposals – the government is pressing ahead with their demolition of our precious legal aid system.
Labour will continue to oppose the government’s policies on legal aid, and we will work with all those affected by the proposals. When in government, we had begun the process of seeking savings, but we disagree fundamentally with this government’s chosen path of decimating social welfare law. Their policies, if fully implemented, are in danger of creating advice deserts throughout the country, and run the risk of destroying a system that has for over sixty years sought to protect the legal rights of every citizen of this country, regardless of financial circumstances. This is too precious to simply discard, and we must all fight hard for its retention.