A growing coalition is pushing for legal reform as domestic violence victims, welfare claimants, and others find themselves unable to access legal support amid deep legal aid cuts and a justice system in crisis.
Introduced in 1949 as one of Labour’s key social reforms — alongside the NHS and welfare — legal aid affords people legal support if facing charges, allowing them to launch their own legal action if they have been wronged by employers, state institutions, or service providers. As the recession hit hard in the late 2000s, Labour, and then the Coalition government went looking for savings. Welfare and the NHS were politically difficult to saddle with large and obvious cuts, but justice carried less political baggage; its importance was less embedded in the national consciousness.
A staggering 34 per cent of the Ministry of Justice budget was cut in just five years, and more since. Much of it has come from the scaling back of legal aid. Legal aid for criminal charges was not cut so drastically, but aid for civil matters — defending oneself from maladministration or mistreatment regarding healthcare, welfare, immigration, citizenship, child welfare, and housing, were all gutted. In 2009/10, legal aid provided advice in 933,815 instances, it then fell by 84 per cent in seven years.
Many now find themselves without the means to seek justice. Rights of Women’s research found that 43 per cent of domestic violence victims were unable to produce any of the evidence required to access legal aid. Further, since the cuts the number of housing and immigration cases funded by legal aid has more than halved, and family mediation assessment — that allows people in family disputes to know their rights before potential legal action — has collapsed almost entirely.
This situation was not created just by defunding, but by changes to the legal aid system, where a counterintuitive and convoluted system measuring the ability to pay for one’s own legal services was introduced — one that fails to account for council taxes, work-related expenses over £45 a month, and grossly overestimates the value of mortgaged property.
Concurrently other cuts have seen the whole legal system in freefall — 258 courts in England and Wales have closed in a decade, and the charitable sector has declined just as catastrophically, shattering any hope that NGOs might be able to fill the gap. Amid this, the Criminal Bar Association who represent criminal barristers — those who represent defendants facing criminal charges — voted to strike amid continuing cuts and a new wage system. The Government has somewhat ironically framed the strike as a intolerable attack on the legal system due to the deprivation of services, with an MoJ spokesperson stating: ‘any action to disrupt the courts is unacceptable’.
The situation appears deadlocked — strikers and charities demand refinancing of the whole system, but the Government appears to have no options that it would likely carry through. Austerity has lost mainstream support, leaving it politically impossible to make cuts elsewhere to refinance justice. It seems fanciful to think the Government might abandon its political platform and seek new mass revenues and taxes to fund public services. Its only way out may be to cobble together what funding it can in the hopes of breaking the strike and restoring a semblance of normalcy to the justice system. But this would not be enough to fix the problems that plague the system and make justice inaccessible to many. In the Opposition, Labour’s Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon MP announced that they would support restoring legal aid in cases relating to housing, but this represents only a fraction of what was formerly offered.
In the meantime, a growing coalition is lobbying for outright reform, including the Greater Manchester Law Centre, the Black Solicitors Network, Young Legal Aid Lawyers, The Fabian Society, and the Criminal Bar Association.
The Greater Manchester Law Centre offers free legal advice by appointment and during walk-in sessions, with a focus on welfare, housing, and employment.