Categorized | Legal Aid

Public opposition to legal aid cuts

Public opposition to legal aid cuts

Public opposition to legal aid cuts is hardening, with fewer than one in four now backing the government’s austerity drive, according to an opinion poll released last week to mark the service’s 65th anniversary.

Since coming to power in 2010, ministers at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) have had a clear agenda of wanting to cut the legal aid budget as part of the government’s programme to reduce the public spending deficit. In April 2013, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012 introduced a radical reduction in the type of cases covered by the civil legal aid scheme.

The government estimated in 2012 that, overall, 623,000 people would lose out on civil legal aid due to the LASPO Act scope cuts. The Act swept away entitlement to state-funded legal advice in family, benefits, employment, housing and other common civil legal cases. There have also been severe cuts in criminal legal aid. To justify these cuts, the government has pursued a policy of traducing legal aid in the media by sticking to a few frequently repeated misrepresentations about the scheme.

In another example of the crass lack of joined up government so typical of the coalition, the cuts came just as the bewildering and savage reorganisation of welfare benefits was incompetently introduced, when the now slashed Citizen’s Advice Bureaux would have been invaluable.

The united opposition of the legal profession to these cuts, leading to strikes and non cooperation, might not have provoked support from the general public, used to the ‘fat cat’ perception of any lawyer, however humble their role. In spite of this, public support for legal aid remains remarkably robust and has over the last year shifted decisively against the government.
The research, commissioned by the Legal Action Group (LAG), reveals a significant shift in attitude towards spending priorities for the courts between 2013-14, despite claims by the MoJ that lawyers are overpaid and that legal aid is being handed out to undeserving, foreign claimants.

The first poll was conducted in April 2013, the month in which the LASPO Act cuts were brought in, with a follow-up poll conducted in April 2014. Both polls used a sample group of just over 1,000 adults aged 16+/18+ in Great Britain and were conducted as part of Ipsos MORI’s regular Omnibus telephone/face-to-face surveys.

For both studies, the proportion of British adults agreeing that legal aid should be cut to reduce the government spending deficit was significantly lower than those disagreeing. In 2013, a third (34%) of adults aged 18+ in Great Britain agreed that legal aid should be cut to reduce the government spending deficit, but there has been a shift in opinion with only 23% agreeing in 2014. In 2013, 44% of British adults disagreed with the statement that legal aid should be cut to reduce the government spending deficit, compared to 49% this year – a five percentage point increase.

In LAG’s view these results show that the government is comprehensively losing the argument over legal aid policy.

Andrew Caplen, the president of the Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, said: “Since access to legal aid for ordinary people was slashed from April last year, there is a growing realisation amongst the public that help with everyday legal problems such as family, housing and employment law cases is much less widely available than it was. The evidence from this poll demonstrates that the more these effects become apparent, the less the public is prepared to support cuts to legal aid.

“Despite the government’s dubious claim about the cost of the legal aid system compared to other countries, the reality is that legal aid lawyers are often earning as little as £25,000 a year to help the most vulnerable in society.”

This post was written by:

- who has written 462 posts on Upper Case – The Anya Legal Journal.

Mike Gribbin is a retired Civil Servant with wide experience, including the drafting and implementation of Parliamentary legislation and regulations. He is the editor of “Criminal Offences Handbook”, a uniquely comprehensive guide to more than one thousand ways to fall foul of UK criminal law. He is Editor of the Upper Case Legal Journal and has been writing blog posts for the past eight years.

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