Why the Legal Aid cuts are bad for everyone

Since the introduction of Legal Aid more than 60 years ago by Prime Minister Clement Attlee, the service has helped the poor and socially disenfranchised in our society gain the legal assistance they would often otherwise be unable to afford. The Coalition Government’s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Bill has, in the last week, had its first reading in the House of Lords, and aims to cut around £350 million from Legal Aid in spite of almost universal public criticism. Overseen by Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke and the Minister in charge of Legal Aid reform Jonathan Djanogly, the Bill has highlighted in many people’s eyes the inability of the Government both to sympathise with those at the lower end of the economic spectrum, and deliver lasting and well thought out reforms to the public sector.

Among those the hardest hit by these cuts are children and young adults. Of the £350 million being slashed from the Legal Aid budget, £280 million is being taken from social welfare cases; including employment, housing and benefits issues. According to JustRights, a charity campaigning for fair access to justice for young people, Legal Aid cuts will “fuel youth crime and leave young victims of crime unprotected”. A study conducted by leading legal academic Professor Pascoe Pleasance has found that 55% of young people who had recently been arrested, and 63% of young victims of crime, had also experienced problems related to civil justice, often relating to the aforementioned social welfare issues. With a projected 75,000 young people losing their access to Legal Aid, one must ask whether the Coalition Government is leading justice reform in the right direction.

Just one other group that is to be affected by the cuts is those women suffering from domestic abuse. The LASPO Bill attempts to alter the definition of domestic abuse, and also modify the stipulations for access to Legal Aid for abused women, stating that those suffering from psychological and emotional abuse will not be eligible, and that a police report and court action must already be in progress before Legal Aid can be provided. Jonathan Djanogly has maintained that ‘objective evidence’ must be presented when taxpayers’ money is being spent, but the National Federation of Women’s Institutes has claimed that “without access to Legal Aid, women will stay in abusive relationships: as a result, more women will be killed by violent partners and there will be an increase in suicides”. In the opinion of women’s groups, Legal Aid is an invaluable resource to women suffering from domestic abuse, and the Government is ultimately putting lives at risk with its excessive and short-sighted cuts to the service.

The cornerstone of the Government’s justification for these cuts has come in the championing of mediation services in issues such as family separation. They have claimed that Legal Aid cuts will see around 250,000 fewer legal help and representation cases, and an increase of only 4,000 to 10,000 mediations. However, the Law Society has claimed that this wildly underestimates actual figures, with the organisation’s director of legal policy referring to them as “heroic assumptions.” On top of this, in spite of Djanogly’s talk of cheaper and more efficient mediation, the National Mediation Helpline and ADRnow website, which guides the public in out-of-court initiatives, have both been axed, thereby further restricting access to legal support.

Aside from harming the poorest and most vulnerable, cuts to Legal Aid also represent a false economy according to many. The Coalition Government has been accused of lacking a joined-up approach to the judicial system, and many statistics appear to reinforce this allegation. As previously cited, a study has found that 55% of recent young offenders have been involved in civil justice problems. It currently costs £6 million to provide advice to the 25,840 young people who will be cut out of the social welfare legal aid scheme. It would be costing the Ministry of Justice more than that if just one in 445 of those young people ended up in prison. Also, according to the Citizens Advice Bureau, every £1 spent on Legal Aid saves £2.34 on housing issues, £7.13 on unemployment advice, and £8.80 on benefits issues. Even behind the priceless service that Legal Aid provides in our society, the argument can be made that early intervention in these issues results in greater savings down the line.

Legal reform in this manner is an inevitability given the state of our economy, and we must accept that Legal Services will suffer their share of cuts like everyone else across the public sector. But cuts to Legal Aid especially must surely be questioned, not simply because of the very real risk of social exclusion that may result, but in the financial short-sightedness of the reforms that will ultimately end up costing the taxpayer more over time.

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Posted on November 13, 2011, in Coalition Government, Conservative Party, Looking Forward, Parliamentary Business and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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