‘Why I believe the poor need access to the law’

Opposing government cuts, a lawyer asks if the justice system can survive as a pillar of a fair and equal society when access to legal advice and representation is limited by the ability to pay?

Legal aid allows those on low or modest incomes to receive advice and, where necessary, representation in court. The system was set up in the wake of the Second World War by the great reforming Attlee government, alongside the NHS and other measures designed to ensure that the needs of working people would be met.

After the ravages of the war there was a real sense that poor and working class people needed to be treated more fairly than they had been before. That meant their health had to be looked after, they needed to be supported if they fell ill or lost their jobs, and they needed fair access to justice.

The structure and delivery of legal aid has changed over the years. For example in the early 1980s, after police corruption was exposed, the right to free advice when under arrest was enshrined. In this country it has been a great success, contributing to the British justice system being the envy of the world. That is now under great threat.

Since the early 1990s (coincidentally when the wartime generation of politicians retired) fees for legal aid work have been cut relentlessly, making it very difficult for lawyers to devote the necessary time to properly advise and represent clients.

Then last year the government decided to remove the funding for legal aid from most areas of civil law. So there is now no redress for parents prevented from seeing their children, a child unfairly excluded from school (jeopardising an entire future), someone unfairly sacked, or many others treated unfairly. Many will be unable to represent themselves when faced with legal complexities and intimidating court procedures.

In criminal law, thankfully, legal aid has to survive because there are international obligations to ensure fair trials for those facing criminal charges. Repeated cuts have, however, already meant a two tier system: money will buy you a different quality of defence. But now Mr Grayling, the justice minister, is proposing a further 17.5% cut. This could spell the end of any meaningful defence service.

Criminal convictions can have devastating consequences for people’s lives, and the courts now see increasing numbers of people forced to go to court without a lawyer. I have seen them stand in the dock, pressured into changing their plea to guilty, and nervously awaiting their fate. It is deeply depressing to watch.

The obsession of our era is personal wealth, and there is a trite and much-repeated assumption that lawyers seek high fees. But legal aid lawyers do not covet wealth. Instead they make a principled choice to represent those at the margins of society, much maligned and with no one else to speak on their behalf.

Today legal aid firms and barristers’ chambers are closing due to the cuts. Talented lawyers are leaving or not entering legal aid. So the next time you read headlines about ‘fat cat QCs’, read on to find details of the cuts to the justice system and think of the broken lives up and down the country that legal aid lawyers are trying to mend.

Surely the test of any justice system is whether all can benefit from it? If only the rich can protect their legal rights then they are no longer legal rights in any real sense, but merely another extension of the power of the wealthiest.

You Decide

  1. Should the legal system be kept safe from the cuts to the rest of the public sector?

Activities

  1. Using the links and your own research, write a short response to this article, giving the other side of the argument.

Word Watch

Attlee
Clement Attlee became prime minister of the UK after Labour won the 1945 general election. During his period in office, major reforms to education were made, alongside the founding of the NHS, and the construction of the modern welfare state.
International obligations
Article 6 of the Equality and Human Rights Act ensures the right to a fair trial. The Act, politically controversial in the UK, was incorporated into UK law from a European Convention in 1998. The right to a fair trial is also one of the ‘norms’ of international human rights conventions.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.