Losing legal aid

Many of the biggest challenges to austerity have come via the law. Time and again ordinary people have teamed up with lawyers where they feel some aspect of the government’s reforms will cause serious social injustice.

But even as the law is used to challenge the government, funding for legal aid also falls victim to the spending cuts. Earlier this month, judges in the high court ruled the residency test (an attempt by the government to severely restrict legal aid for foreign nationals) was unlawful. The Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling was singled out for relying on “public prejudice” to impose a “discriminatory provision” which would deny legal aid to some of the people who needed it most.

This week’s edition of Lacuna assesses the wider damage caused by the cuts to civil and criminal legal aid and finds that it is so often those in greatest need – the vulnerable, the marginalised, the isolated, the poorest – who are most affected.

Natalie Byrom tells ‘Two Tales from the Tribunal’ – the stories of two individuals who are appealing against welfare benefits decisions. Above all, she brings out how the appeals process intrudes into every nook and cranny of their lives, and requires them to justify their most private moments, their most vulnerable characteristics. The legal advocate is a vital source of strength in this process, but funding for legal representation for such appeals is now the exception and not the rule.

Michael Wall is a criminal defence lawyer from South Yorkshire who will soon be leaving a profession he loves because it is no longer financially viable. Despite his sense of pain, he recognises that his loss is not the most important one. It’s the children in care, those with mental health problems and other neglected groups who will lose the most by ‘the death of a profession’. Who will challenge the lack of empathy and compassion that these people so often receive from those in positions of power within the criminal justice system, once specialist, experienced lawyers are no longer representing them?

Deena Blacking is also concerned about the future of her profession. She discuss the terrible difficulties faced by young people hoping to enter the profession as legal aid lawyers. She highlights the rising cost of education and training, the lack of opportunities in legal aid law firms and the miserable rates of pay. This all leads her to ask whether there are going to be enough young people available or willing to sustain the profession in the future, and what the consequences might be in terms of access to justice for the most financially vulnerable members of our society.

Asher Flynn gives us a perspective from Australia where severe cuts to legal aid are also being made. She discusses the impact of those cuts in her home state of Victoria. She highlights the role of ‘activist judges’ in fighting back to protect criminal legal aid funding. But she finds that this activism has led to the prioritisation of funding for criminal cases above, and at the expense of, serious civil and family law matters. She worries that, as a result, “civil and family law clients will simply disappear from the system, subject to the very real penalties that come from failing to respond to issues like bankruptcy, welfare, housing, divorce, custody and employment conflicts.”

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi gives us hope, by telling a phoenix-from-the ashes story.

As Law Centres around the country close, or dramatically reduce their services, Birmingham has a new Law Centre, created by the drive and commitment of individuals determined to serve their community. She describes how they deal with the problems of people in the second poorest ward in the city, fighting to keep them away from destitution.

Sue Bent, Director of Coventry Law Centre, adds to our ‘perspectives on prosperity’ by giving us the outlook of a legal professional working with the same kind of communities in Coventry. She recognises that prospects are bleak for the people she works with. She argues that, in our resource constrained environment, we need to tap into the strengths of those communities and help foster networks which will support the most isolated people within them. And she argues that we must ensure that the financial resources we do have left are not just focused on dealing with crises, but also at preventing those crises from occurring in the first place.

These last two pieces remind us that legal advocates, embedded in their local communities, continue to do vital work to help those who need it most. But at the same time, access to justice is disappearing for many other vulnerable individuals and groups across the country. The consequences for these people will be devastating. We need to rebuild belief in the value of law and legal representation for those who most need society’s protection.

Photo by Dave Rutt