'It's Legal Aid, Jim, But Not As We Know It.'

A month ago, the government announced plans to wipe £350m off the legal aid budget and if carried through, over 500,000 of the most vulnerable members of our society will no longer have access to justice. That's 25% of those currently able to do so, denied the democratic right first outlined in Magna Carta eight hundred years ago: 'we will not deny or defer to any man either justice or right'.

By any measure this will be an extraordinary challenge to a legal aid system that has successfully protected the rights of tens of millions of people over the past 60 years. Yet, as against the projected impact of the increases in university fees, the response of the legal profession so far has been somewhat muted. This may prove short sighted. There is a growing consensus that the reductions in legal aid will force non legal aid practices to take on a much increased pro-bono workload.1 The point has also been made that effective legal aid was the price for the continuing independence of the legal (unlike the medical) profession when the post – war welfare reforms were implemented.

Legal Aid is not currently considered a vote winner but a recent report found that 84% of the population are in favour (in fact, in favour of extending legal aid to all of those on less than the average national income).2 Although such a suggestion sounds unrealistic today, it should be borne in mind that when the system was introduced 80% of the population qualified for assistance. That suggests that public opinion will force the provision of access to justice of some sort for those unable to meet from their own pocket the costs of representation, once the impact of the proposed changes has been felt. One of our partners has experience of working in France, where every partnership was allocated cases every year in which they are obliged to offer their services to the impecunious at 'legal aid rates'; it is not impossible to imagine a similar burden being placed upon our profession as a whole.

Many aspects of the current proposals certainly necessitate serious challenge through the consultation process. For example, the removal of ancillary relief in divorce proceedings used by tens of thousands of women, for the sake of saving £19m is clearly without merit. It may have provided a convenient sound bite but the truth is that this is a sum that could have been covered by improved efficiencies in the administration of legal aid. Instead it is apparently preferable to compel...

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