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Describing the legal system in a speech to the Annual Bar and Young Bar Conference (subsequently quoted in The Guardian), Andrew Walker QC, lamented an ailing system, punctured by “political design, political folly and political expenditure.” Many campaigners against the change have denounced the cuts as political manoeuvring designed to provide quick and quiet austerity wins.
Not only has legal representation taken a blow, the capacity for these organisations to offer free legal advice has also diminished. In a study undertaken by the BBC, it was discovered that legal aid provision is disappearing nationally, creating “legal aid deserts” and a “five-fold rise” in people representing themselves in the courts. Enduring a downturn in spending by almost 13%, the judicial system is on the front line of austerity measures (compared to say, the NHS, which has seen a 25% increase in its funding, though still under served). Changes to funding will be most keenly felt in the family and criminal courts; The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) withdrew aid from areas of law including family, welfare, housing and debt. where the service provision of legal aid is highest, meaning that domestic abuse survivors are among those facing a dearth of representation.
While government revisions to funding have been designed to stem the flow of cases traversing the courts via the public purse, lowering the means test and removing automatic eligibility for those recipients of means tested benefits achieves only a barrier to justice for some, not a less litigious society for all. Speaking to the BBC, Nicola Mackintosh QC said: "We see people more desperate and in more extreme need than they were five years ago, and there is nowhere to send them. Those people are invisible to the system."
The objectives of the change originated primarily from a cost saving perspective: to deliver “better overall value for money,” shifting provision away from an over-burdened legal aid service. However, campaigners have denounced the change as a false economy which has instead forced the burden over to the courts, social care and NHS, aggravating expenditure on an already stretched sector. This is felt most keenly in instances where early legal advice could prevent costs spiralling for the taxpayer, and the courts. As is often the case, legal resolutions can be reached much sooner through out of court advocacy. In an interview to the BBC, Shadow Secretary for Justice Richard Burgon MP denounced the cuts as a “deliberate weakening people’s ability to challenge injustices and enforce their rights.”
The desertion of communities is broadly considered one of the greatest blows to access to justice, as more than 15 law community centres closed within 18 months of the withdrawal of funding. The number of not-for-profit civil legal aid providers has diminished by almost 50% in the past 7 years. The effects of the reduction in grass roots legal support has reverberated throughout the profession, as the courts feel the strain of self-representation, overburdened practitioners and under served communities.
Exclusion from justice is a huge concern for practitioners; The Law Society continue their campaign to safeguard judicial spending, to ensure that ordinary people aren’t blockaded from justice due to barriers of finance. In particular, the Law Society aims to combat the legal aid deserts which plight over 37% of the population in England and Wales. One particularly poignant example of the importance of these resources is in cases regarding landlord disputes and evictions. When the dwindling numbers of legal centres cross UK are considered against the spiralling numbers of homeless in the UK, there is certainly a worrying correlation between the effects of reductions in access to justice, legal representation and widening lines of poverty.
In a recent study undertaken by the government, it was found that social mobility is in steady decline, and we have reached what is, undeniably, a basement level of opportunity for those born to already disadvantaged backgrounds. Described by the government as a "postcode lottery" The report warned "that Britain is in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division and calls on government to increase its proportion of spending on those parts of the country that most need it." Cuts to legal aid certainly make this ambition more remote and reinforce existing class boundaries. The government should consider the grave ramifications these cuts will have on the most needy, and extend their thinking beyond the linearity of cost savings; for what we save economically, we stand to lose something far greater.
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