Jonathan Wheeler, lawyer and managing partner of the London law firm Burdon Kemp Bolt, examines the main problems of the current UK legal aid system
Access to free point-of-use legal aid for anyone who needs it should be a cornerstone of our welfare state, as should access to education and health care. It should be taken for granted for any civilized society to enable people to assert their rights and defend themselves against unjustified interference with their freedom, reputation and property. A study commissioned by my law firm Bolt Burdon Kemp found that Britain’s legal aid funding system is woefully inadequate for this purpose. Here are some of the key issues preventing people in the UK from having proper access to legal services.
Increased government cuts to legal aid funding
Perhaps the most important point when discussing legal aid is that the eligibility criteria have been drastically reduced over the years by the government. When legal aid was first introduced in 1949, 80% of the UK population was eligible. In 2007, government cuts to legal aid funding reduced it to 27%, and in 2013, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Suppression of Offenders Act (LASPO) cut it even further. The eligibility criteria for legal aid in Britain are now limited to a small handful of legal issues and financial situations.
Difficulties in meeting the eligibility criteria
While legal aid is theoretically provided in all criminal cases except minor offenses, the rules are more complicated for civil cases and only if someone is poor enough to qualify. Legal aid is currently only available to people facing life-changing issues, such as loss of housing, domestic violence, asylum and some issues related to discrimination, immigration and social benefits. “Britain’s legal aid funding system is woefully inadequate.”
The evidence required to demonstrate that a person seeking legal aid cannot cover the costs of legal aid themselves is also very strict. The current system requires applicants to have less than £ 8,000 in fixed assets and earn less than £ 2,657 per month with less than £ 733 in disposable income. This includes assets that can be shared with a partner. This may mean that people fleeing abusive partners or seeking custody of children may find themselves unable to meet eligibility requirements simply because they are married or otherwise related to their partner.
Lack of legal aid providers
For the few people who qualify for legal aid, it can be difficult to find a lawyer due to a general lack of legal aid providers. The number of legal aid providers in England and Wales has grown from 4,257 law firms and non-profit organizations providing legal aid services in 2011-2012 to 2,900 in 2019-2020. In fact, starting in 2013, there has been a rapid decline in the number of providers, which has led to the creation of “legal aid deserts” where there is little or no legal aid presence in some. parts of the country.
“We need to make more consumers, parliamentarians and opinion-makers care about what is happening to our justice system; a system that is shortened, sidelined and, in some cases, completely dismantled. “
Lack of knowledge of the legal aid system
Of course, the existence of a number of legal aid providers will be in vain if members of the public do not know how to access the help they need. My firm’s research found that 46% of the UK public “don’t understand the legal system or how they can get legal assistance”. Our survey of 2,000 UK adults in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland also found that 51% of respondents think there are too many barriers to funding legal aid.
Civil justice is not seen as accessible or affordable
Add to that the fact that the British public does not believe civil justice is accessible or affordable. The World Justice Project Rule of Law Index asked the British public about civil justice in the country. Comparison of their responses from 2015 shows that the British public is progressively disillusioned. In 2015, the UK scored 0.58 (with 1 being the highest possible score) for the statement “People can access and pay for civil justice”. By 2016, that number had fallen to 0.56 and had fallen further to 0.52 in 2020 – placing the UK a meager 79th out of 128 for this factor in 2020.
Why is the legal aid system in crisis?
People in the UK care passionately about the NHS and rightly so. In my opinion, access to justice should be just as important (if not more) for the citizens of this country. Access to health care and access to legal support are both likely to be “distress purchases”. Most people have relied on the NHS in the past and are willing to do so in the future. The NHS during the COVID-19 pandemic has become the darling of the nation. To propose cuts to the services of the NHS is electoral suicide at the polls.
However, the public has their heads in the sand over the cuts to legal aid. They are not invested in the legal system and do not believe that they will ever need to assert their legal rights or defend themselves against unwarranted intrusion into their privacy. That is why successive governments of all stripes have taken advantage of voters turning a blind eye to raids on the legal aid budget.
We need to get more consumers, parliamentarians and opinion makers to care about what is happening to our justice system; a system that is being brought down, sidelined and, in some cases, completely dismantled. A government that cuts legal aid to its bones is acting in a way that is akin to depriving its people of their rights. It is an abuse of process, an attack on the rule of law. Just ask yourself who or what benefits when ordinary people are unable to assert their rights or defend themselves effectively? My answer is that it is the institutions of power that benefit, aided and encouraged by government ministers who over the years have taken a knife into our legal aid system.
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