The problem with Legal Aid in Britain

Photo by Claire Anderson on Unsplash

Access to justice has become an increasingly controversial process over the years. The LASPO (Legal aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders) Act is at the forefront of many trials and tribulations since its establishment in 2012.

Taking a brief history trip to identify how legal aid ended up at such a place is quite intriguing. Initially, Legal aid was established in 1949 and was administered by the Law Society until the Legal Aid act in 1988 was founded. Then came a key moment in the legal aid system history, Lord Woolf’s report on the legal aid system triggers a review of the system resulting in the Access to Justice Act 1999. Fast-forwarding to more recent events, another review of the Legal aid system leads to the LASPO Act being implemented and the LSC being abolished, with the LAA taking its place thus resulting to the situation we are dealing with now.

Currently, many individuals are being neglected under the reformed Legal Aid System due to the following; harder access to aid, higher cost, longer waiting periods and no aid available for some legal issues. People must now pay for legal advice, represent themselves or be excluded from the justice system altogether and find other means of help.

The LASPO Act was mainly introduced due to increasing pressure on the legal aid budget and was implemented to help reduce the national deficit. The current legal aid scheme consists of three major components; Legal aid for civil court proceedings, Legal advice and assistance and criminal legal aid. Some changes LASPO made too legal aid are as such; Introduction of employment tribunal fees, increased court fees and restricting legal aid payment.

LASPO aims to discourage unnecessary adversarial litigation at the public expense, to make legal aid available for those who need it the most, to make significant savings for the cost of the scheme and to deliver better overall value for the taxpayer. Most of the savings were made through removing a number of areas of law that were accessible under the legal aid system and also reducing the limit on maximum income capital that is required to qualify for legal aid.

Many practical initiatives have been set up to help with legal aid, these initiatives are mainly self-funded or government funded too help with legal issues that the public may be facing. An example of one of these practical initiatives would be the Public Defenders Service. The PDS provides high-quality defence representation on all types of criminal cases. They typically follow Section 29 of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012 which includes duties to protect the interests of the clients. Also, Community Advice Centres provide advice and help on many different issues, from housing problems to debt problems all the way too custody issues.

Some glaring weaknesses about the current existing law surrounding access to justice include;

- The new LASPO act leaves many vulnerable groups of people (Such as children who are victims of child abuse not having the resources to access legal help for there situation), isolating them from quick accurate accessible legal advice.

- People who are even eligible for legal aid find it hard to access the help since less and less lawyers are becoming public defenders due to a lack of money in the field and as a consequence, the lawyers that are public defenders are getting overworked.

- People who are a part of a serious legal claim will most likely lose their job, whilst also still having to pay for legal fees and other household bills, meanwhile, the claim will take months to even get to court, resulting in a dire situation for many people that may not recover from such hardships.

- Clients being funded through legal aid are fighting an unfair battle against wealthier individuals and organisations.

The need for reform of legal aid since the LASPO Act came into action has been a very hotly debated topic. Firstly Lord Bingham’s rule of law states that a strong, functioning legal system, which is accessible and applies equally to all, and also where means are provided to resolve disputes without excessive cost or delay puts parties on an equal footing, suggesting that a legal system should be equally accessible to all parties without any costs or delays.

Contrasting this too how the legal system currently runs, there are many costs with legal help such as litigation help and actual court costs, which would give an advantage to people who have more money resulting in an uneven footing.

The UK Government stated;

Changes to Legal aid where to target those who are in most need

When in reality, it has left many vulnerable groups of people who do not have access to this help.

Another statement from the UK Government on the topic regarding the changes made to the legal system ;

Changes where made to the legal system due too the state of the economy and the excessive public expenditure

in reality the severe strain that is applied on the court system and the longer times the cases take too resolve result in a huge burden on court finances and resources, thus, affecting the public purse in the long run.

Practical initiatives currently are providing serviceable alternatives to the current legal aid, but cannot feasibly be a long term solution whilst the legal system is in a state of despair.

Initiatives such as the Public Defenders Service and Personal support units can provide an outcome for legally neglected people, but, there is an issue with finances and getting adequate staffing, if there is a squeeze on dwindling resources for these services then the burden and pressure will only increase on these services.

Some suggestions of a successful reform of Legal Aid are;

  • Firstly, an increased funding pumped into civil legal aid and an expansion of staffed legal aid offices are critical in order to get effective legal assistance, mainly because more lawyers would be tempted to get into legal aid if there was better funding provided, resolving the lack of attorneys issue.
  • Secondly making legal aid available for all through any legal problems that the wider public may have is important in order to ensure everybody gets access to legal help and do not feel the need to look for alternative methods but rather enquire a choice to explore for these alternative methods independently.
  • Thirdly, to resolve cost problems, asking for proof of each family’s yearly income and adding a certain threshold where falling below it means that legal aid is provided for free, whilst people who can afford legal aid without much stress should be liable to pay resulting in a more even playing field for everyone.

A stricter punishment for court case cancellations should also be added, to ensure fewer cases get postponed resulting in an overall more efficient legal system.

Regularly commissioning an independent review on the sustainability of the legal aid system, mainly focusing on economic stability and a focus on local need and demand, so resources will not get wasted in some areas where other areas are lacking in them, resulting in a more efficient legal system.

I believe through the reasons I have stated, and through countless other journals, articles and organisations advocating for reform, that a reform of the Legal aid system is necessary for a more effective legally functioning society and too provide everyone with a fair and even playing field in the legal system. Any shortcomings that can be argued are a small price to pay in exchange for giving the public an easier time with trials and court hearings, especially when these procedures can be so emotionally draining. Comparing the current legal system with Lord Bingham’s 8 rules of law you can clearly see there is a distance between the rules that Lord Bingham himself stated for a well functioning legal system and the current legal system. Applying a reform would surely lead to a more legal system in and of itself.