The Legal Aid Bill is currently passing through the committee stage in the House of Lords. It has so far only faced meagre opposition from interested parties such as lawyers and personal injury specialists. However the bill places the legal system out of reach for most people in this country. Here’s why it should be scrapped:
1) Only the wealthy will have access to civil justice.
If implemented, the proposed changes would lead to a complete reversal of the ethos of the current system. At the moment legal aid is granted in most sorts of civil case, excluding a few areas. The new plan is to disallow claims across the board, but make a few exceptions. So for example you won’t get financial help for a divorce case unless you conform to strict criteria that determine whether domestic violence has taken place.
“those needing help in cases of medical negligence, divorce, employment and welfare will no longer have access to justice. These people will effectively be silenced, as their cases will go unheard without the support of a legal aid lawyer.”
The people who are currently being denied benefits they are entitled to because of the incompetence of Atos would not be able to get financial help to challenge in court the unfair decisions made. Similarly you won’t be able to get legal support to question an unlawful dismissal at work because employment cases are being taken out of the scope of legal aid entirely.
2) It denies a fair hearing to those who have fled persecution and human rights abuses abroad and are now seeking asylum in this country.
The bill removes immigration cases from the scope of legal aid funding. Immigration cases have long subsidised asylum work which is notoriously low paid. The charity Asylum Aid believes that the loss of this funding will threaten the very existence of legal firms who specialise in asylum cases and therefore deny representation to those in need.
This adds to the legal isolation experienced by many in the wake of the closure of organisations such as Refugee and Migrant Justice and the Immigration Advisory Service in the past eighteen months. 400 barristers have warned that these cuts may create legal aid “deserts” where it is impossible to find publicly funded access to justice.
3) Ending “no win no fee” arrangements will put vulnerable people at risk.
No win no fee arrangements, which the legal aid bill is set to end, are stereotyped as a way for ‘daytime TV scroungers’ to profit from phantom injuries which then drives up everyone else’s’ insurance premiums. However they are often the only way for people traumatised or seriously injured by accidents to gain the support they need. In particular, those suffering from mental health problems connected with accidents rely on no win no fee as the only way they can afford treatment. The NHS is woefully under funded in this area and private fees are often set artificially high.
The further stress and worry of building up huge legal fees that they cannot afford will undoubtedly put many off claiming the compensation that they need for their recovery. Personal Injury specialists claim that the number or claimants would plummet by as much as 25%.
Furthermore, the bill will force the successful claimants to pay legal fees, which are currently recuperated from the losing side, out of their winnings. This will further reduce the amount of support available for the vulnerable.
4) It’s a false economy.
The currently dominant austerity doctrine requires us to analyse everything’s worth in terms of how much money it can save us. The legal aid bill fails in this respect. The state spends £2.2 billion a year on lawyers to give advice to and represent people in legal cases: the coalition’s aim is to save £350 million of this, or 0.2 percent of the deficit.
Research by the New Economics Foundation has shown that getting legal advice early can avert huge future legal costs if the case was to later go on to court. In fact this could save approximately £9 for every £1 invested. A cost-benefit analysis developed by the Citizens Advice Bureau shows that for every £1 of legal aid expenditure on housing, debt, employment and benefits advice the state potentially saves between £2.34 and £8.80.
“it is not difficult to understand that it would be cheaper for tax payers and society as a whole if we help an employee to be reinstated following her unlawful dismissal instead of forcing her to sign on for Jobseeker’s Allowance.”
5) It will lead to DIY justice or no justice at all.
The government hopes that the changes will lead to less arguments being played out in the country’s courts. They want us to become an amiable nation that is more intent on friendly, off-the-record negotiation rather than legal wrangling.
Failing this, the government suggests that people can always represent themselves. This is despite the fact that their own study shows that those who undertake this demanding task are often younger, less well educated and lose more often than those who get a lawyer. Writing in the LRB recently, Joanna Biggs chronicled the frustrating, time consuming and often bizarre cases of self representation atCity of Westminster Magistrates Court. One man, responding to a call from the judge to enter a guilty or not guilty plea to the charge of drunk and disorderly replied ‘I don’t know, drunk but not disorderly.’
In civil cases in particular DIY lawyers are likely to be battling against companies who are often represented by expensive, high powered legal teams. Any amount of frantically skimming through complex legal precedents in your lunch hour is unlikely to yield a fair fight.