Legal Aid, which is the provision of advice and representation in court to people who cannot afford to hire a lawyer, was established by the Labour Government in 1949 and revered as one of the principal pillars of the Post-War Welfare State.
Legal Aid fees have been on the decline since 1998 under the Labour Government, but it is the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) which came into force last year, which has almost totally killed off Legal Aid in this country.
There has been no public outcry and the public understandably care more about cuts to education or cuts to Health than cuts to legal aid. Now however the cuts have been with us for one year. It is illuminating to consider the impact they have had on individuals that I see on a daily basis in this office.
I specialise in housing cases. Legal Aid is generally only available if you are at imminent risk of losing your home. It is therefore not available to a tenant who was harassed by a couple of landlords to the extent that her gas and electricity were cut off and she faced crowbar wielding thugs at the door of her flat. The tenant sought help as to whether she could take proceedings against the landlord and I had to inform her that no Legal Aid would be available.
It was also not available to a young girl I saw last week, who following an involvement with social services has had her baby removed and given to her partner and his parents. The young girl now wants to get the baby back, but there is no Legal Aid available to secure any form of custody order.
Let’s take housing disrepair. Housing disrepair has largely had Legal Aid withdrawn from it. This means that people cannot secure assistance of a lawyer to take a landlord to court for housing disrepair issues. The result is of course that people will live in worse housing conditions and indeed, some of those conditions are severely prejudicial to health.
It is no longer possible to get Legal Aid to pursue any form of damages claim. This includes claims against the police, harassment by a landlord, negligence by private individual or public authority. This means that many of the cases that I was able to take on in the past, I can no longer take. They have included elderly parents swindled by their children, rogue Landlords who have harassed and bullied tenants and incompetent solicitors who have cost clients their life savings There has been complete withdrawal of Legal Aid for advice concerning welfare benefit and debt issues. This coincided with a radical reform of benefits so individuals on low incomes cannot get advice as to whether they are being accurately calculated.
What has also been lost is not only the closure of local Legal Aid firms up and down the country, but also the loss of some serious specialist expertise.
Whether a saving has been made to the public purse is yet to be determined. The damage to access to justice is however, not quantifiable.