Justice is increasingly becoming something which belongs to those with the ability to pay for it
We must work hard to stop these gaps from growing even wider. They are a result of political choices, not technical necessities, says Paul Sweeney MP.
Just as the Labour Party was founded more than a century ago to give working people representation in Parliament, Legal Aid was delivered by Clement Attlee’s Labour government in 1949 to rebalance the scales of justice. It was created in recognition of the fact that where people lack the money or knowledge to enforce or defend their legal rights, those rights are worth nothing more than the paper they are written on.
Across the UK today, concerns continue to grow around the adequacy and sustainability of the legal aid system. It is unacceptable that in 2017 justice is increasingly something which is not served to all; but is instead something that belongs to those with the ability to pay for it.
In Scotland, the Law Society has raised concerns over insufficient investment in legal assistance. While in theory wide provisions exist, those who rely on legal aid may soon be unable to find a solicitor to take on their case. That’s because current rates of payment risk making the provision of legal services to some of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society simply unaffordable; many law firms are increasingly operating at a loss, as The Financial Health of Legal Aid Firms in Scotland report found earlier this year.
We must work hard to stop these gaps from growing even wider. They are a result of political choices, not technical necessities.
The experience of legal aid in England and Wales provides a stark warning of what happens when access to justice is further restricted or removed entirely. In the four years since the Conservative led government radically restricted access to legal aid, hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people have been unable to defend their rights in areas as important as housing, employment, immigration and welfare benefits.
Last month the new President of the UK Supreme Court, Lady Justice Hale, became the latest high profile critic of the Conservative government’s legal aid cuts, labelling them as “a false economy”.
As the Legal Aid manifesto explains “We have now seen what happens when access to justice is removed from people within our democracy: further inequality, marginalisation of the most vulnerable, increased cost to the public purse, and a fundamental impact on our society.”
Under mounting pressure, the Conservative government has been forced to open a review into the impact of its legal aid reforms, which will conclude by next summer.
There is a growing clamour for this review to restore the early legal advice part of legal aid. This is the legal support that people get prior to needing a lawyer to represent them in the courts. It is the kind of advice that many require when faced with bewildering benefits decisions, debt problems or rogue landlords.
This week the Law Society called on the government to guarantee reintroducing early legal advice for housing and family cases in its review.
As they point out, a lack of early legal advice can create unnecessary costs for the taxpayer, with cases going to court that could have been resolved much earlier.
Labour has already taken the lead in showing how we could repair the broken justice system, establishing a special justice commission, chaired by Lord Bach, with eminent experts from across the justice system, which put forward a bold new vision.
If the government is to prove itself just as serious in undoing the damage its cuts have done, then it needs to step forward and, as a minimum, guarantee that its review gives proper funding for early legal advice.
Paul Sweeney is the Labour Member of Parliament for Glasgow North East