Access to justice is central to a fair society. Government must recognise the value of legal aid
Without help to navigate the justice system, many disadvantaged people will be prevented from enforcing their rights.
It may not be something we expect or want, but at some point in our lives we all find ourselves involved with the law. If we are lucky it will be in a minor way – as a homebuyer or renter, or in a consumer dispute.
Yet we could also find ourselves charged with a criminal offence; we could be drawn into the family courts, into a complicated probate or leasehold issue (think cladding), or a serious employment matter. Life is unexpected. And that’s without factoring in all the damage wreaked by Covid to jobs, businesses, incomes and access to vital services.
The legal system is frequently seen as being relevant only to criminals and lawyers, but justice is more than the numbers of police on the streets and individuals in prison. For society to be fair, there must be balance between individuals, and between individuals and the state; and a framework for individuals to hold the state to account for its use of power, and to allow its citizens to enforce legal entitlements and rights regardless of their means.
Whole stretches of the country are advice deserts
But individuals – especially already disadvantaged individuals – cannot be expected to know the complexities of rights or legal processes any more than they could be expected to diagnose a medical ailment. Without help to translate the law and procedure, they are not on a level playing field. Without access to justice, justice is denied.
Yet 70 years on from the introduction of legal aid, the foundations are crumbling. Legal aid has been cut deeply; whole stretches of the country are “advice deserts” and whole areas of law are no longer covered.
In 2012, annual expenditure for the civil and criminal justice system was approximately £2.2bn. By March 2020 it had dropped to £1.5bn, a reduction of 38 per cent. Justice has paid a far higher price than any other pillar of government.
In 2013, 1,592 firms had criminal legal aid contracts and 1,881 civil legal aid contracts. By March 2021 this had dropped to 1,104 and 1,445 respectively. In the past year alone, 101 providers have closed their doors or ceased doing publicly funded work.
Covid intensified an already grave situation. So last autumn the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid established the Westminster Commission on Legal Aid as an independent review of the state of the service and profession and its continued viability. The panel, which I chair, also includes James Daly MP (as vice-chair), Baroness Helena Kennedy, Baroness Natalie Bennett, Lord Colin Low, Lord Willy Bach, Gareth Bacon MP, Andy Slaughter MP, Laura Farris MP and Yvonne Fovargue MP.
Over the last six months we’ve heard devastating evidence from practitioners and clients across the spectrum. Lawyers from criminal, family, education, mental capacity, community care, immigration, housing, and inquest law spoke to us about the impact on clients, their own routes into practice, the ability to recruit and retain practitioners, and their ability to make a living working in legal aid.
We have heard from a bereaved mother trying to navigate the inquest process alone to find out exactly how her son died, and from a mother forced to represent herself in court to safeguard her children from abuse.
We heard about the vital role judicial review played in challenging the state over the housing needs of a severely disabled woman. We have heard, over and over again, that the current system falls short for clients and those who serve them.
Later this year we will publish a report of our findings, backed by research from the largest survey of legal aid practitioners ever undertaken. We hope the strength of our evidence and the all-party nature of our inquiry will lead to action on the part of government.
Access to justice is widely understood to be central to a fair society. It deserves to be fought for.
Karen Buck is Labour MP for Westminster North and chair of the APPG on Legal Aid, and the Westminster Commission on Legal Aid.