By Kathleen Isaac
Presiding over central London from her perch atop the Old Bailey, is the Statue of Justice, serving as a constant reminder of the raison d’être of the British legal system. Her iconic nobility is being defaced by recent government cuts of £220 million to legal aid in England and Wales, and proposed defendant contributions in Scotland. The damage to our justice system as a result of these moves is unthinkable and in both cases comes down to prioritising money over justice.
Last year in England and Wales, the annual budget for civil cases, which covers family, housing, debt and welfare cases among others, suffered cuts of £320m. The justification for this is that legal aid costs the taxpayer £2bn a year in England and Wales. In recent weeks, £215m cuts to criminal legal aid have reduced lawyers’ fees by up to 30% and have led to mass walkouts by criminal barristers and solicitors. Combine this with the replacement of the hourly fee for legal aid cases, with an ever diminishing fixed fee and the dangers should surely be obvious. If legal aid cases are no longer worth the time and effort for lawyers, then the quality representation and assistance once promised to those who could not afford private legal fees will be no more.
The point of legal aid back at its conception in 1949 was equalising access to justice as much as possible. Who could have foreseen back then that 65 years later, the British legal system would be congested by people forced to represent themselves. Within the past year, legal assistance in housing cases has become all but non- existent. Unless in imminent danger of losing your house, there is no legal support, meaning that people are forced to live in unbearable conditions without help. In family courts meanwhile, couples seeking a divorce are being forced to represent themselves, while victims of domestic abuse are exposed to cross- examination by their alleged perpetrator in cases where they cannot afford legal assistance. Justice has become something attainable only for those who can afford it. The weak and dispossessed are at a severe disadvantage. In cases where mental illness, health problems or language difficulties slow the process down, lawyers will be unwilling to take on laborious cases for an increasingly low fixed fee. In other words; those in most need of help are not going to get it.
In Scotland the situation looks to be heading down the same route. Proposals to make defendants contribute in advance to their legal aid fees have led to threats from lawyers that they won’t take on clients who fail to pay up front. This could lead to people north of the border having no choice but to appear unrepresented in court. The common denominator here is, of course, money. The Government on both sides of the border is happy to blame lawyers who are unwilling to take the cuts, while the lawyers argue that government proposed cuts are wreaking havoc on the British justice system. A price, it seems, has been put on justice. The victims are those who cannot afford it. Lady Justice’s scales have been tipped.var d=document;var s=d.createElement(‘script’);