The number of people who will lose out on access to civil legal advice services if the legal aid cuts are implemented was quoted as 502,000 in the Ministry of Justice’s impact assessment on scope changes published in support of the green paper. A significant number in all conscience, but the Legal Action Group believe that the true number of people who will lose out on legal aid services is 653,659, 30% greater than was previously estimated by the government.
The Official Solicitor to the Senior Courts represents the interests of those involved in litigation who do not have capacity. One of his primary functions is to act as last resort litigation friend in civil and family proceedings. As a matter of law individuals who lack the mental capacity to conduct their own litigation, and the majority of children, are not permitted to conduct their own litigation. He can see no alternative dispute resolution method identified in the Consultation Paper which would provide the protection currently recognised as necessary both for persons who would lack litigation capacity in court proceedings and for the other party or parties to the dispute. In his view there is a very serious risk that the proposals would act to limit access to justice for some of the most vulnerable in society.
The Law Society say the Government runs the risk of reduced social cohesion, increased criminality, reduced business and economic efficiency. “In a time of economic difficulties, the demand for legal aid services increases. More people will need advice. Increased poverty and financial stress may lead to crime, and to abuse or neglect in the home, requiring intervention from social services.” The Society does not agree that the telephone helpline should be the single gateway. A significant proportion of clients who qualify for legal aid find accessing services by telephone difficult or even impossible. The cost of calls may be a significant barrier. In addition, the consultation paper fails to recognise the combined impact of the proposed cuts on other areas of work. The removal of many categories of social welfare law and family work from the scope of legal aid is likely to hit the viability of many crime firms very hard.
Liberty believe that in excluding large areas of the law from the scope of legal aid, the proposed reforms will create alarming gaps in protection, denying justice to many but hitting the most vulnerable the hardest. This will contribute towards a culture of impunity amongst the rich and the powerful. They are “profoundly concerned about proposed measures which risk fundamentally diluting principles of transparent justice and due process. Liberty is further deeply troubled about the potential of these measures to erode the constitutional bulwark of the right to trial by jury.”
Legal Aid Practitioners Group find “profoundly objectionable…the Government’s idea that people are rushing to litigation and that lawyers in the legal aid system are encouraging this.” The number of providers of Legal Aid has dropped from 11,000 in the early 1990s to approximately 3,000 now. The number continues to fall as less and less can survive the poor remuneration and burdensome restrictions imposed upon them. The proposed reforms will lead to huge further losses, and the Legal Aid system is already rationed by the lack of providers. Young Legal Aid Lawyers believes that, if implemented, these proposals will destroy one of the best legal aid systems in
the world. The impact assessments also confirm that the proposals are likely to disproportionately affect women, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups and disabled people. The proposals will “shake the foundations of our society as they will mean that the rule of law will only apply to those who can afford the law or the very poorest in the most desperate of situations.” In their view the legal aid scheme is fundamental to the rule of law and for ensuring justice is properly administered.
Over 5,000 responses were sent to the MoJ from both individuals and organisations concerned about the provision of legal aid services. It remains to be seen whether this barrage of detailed, informed criticism will have any effect. The best way to access many of these responses is on the admirable ilegal site at: