What is Legal Aid?
For those that cannot afford legal assistance and cannot gain access to justice, legal aid has been the central pillar in ensuring that those most vulnerable in society are not left behind. Simply put, legal aid is financial assistance from the government designed to help means tested clients gain much needed access to the justice system, by helping fund the provision of legal representation for cases that fall within its purview. The delivery of such assistance is effected through legal aid agencies dotted around the country, such as law centres and advice clinics who work tirelessly to ensure that everyone has equal access to legal representation and are capable of enforcing their rights.
Even before COVID-19 disrupted the world, legal aid was an incredibly controversial issue. Starting in 1949, it had lofty ambitions with 80% of the UK population being eligible to qualify for legal aid. Naturally, this created a large expense for the state and over successive governments, the availability of legal aid became increasingly diminished until it became nothing more than a shadow of what it used to be. This can be most clearly illustrated through the implementation of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LAPSO) by the Cameron-Clegg coalition government in 2012. Prior to the implementation of LASPSO, 91,000 people received legal advice for cases involving welfare benefits but subsequent to the enforcement of LAPSO, this number plummeted to a mere 478 people.
Ever since its inception, legal aid has faced progressively aggressive cuts to its funding with eligibility criteria becoming increasingly difficult to meet, with many families falling far below the poverty line yet still not deemed eligible to qualify for legal aid despite facing life changing issues such as unlawful eviction. The cut in legal aid funding has also caused a severe drop in the number of law centres with there being 93 law centres and agencies in 2013-2014, dropping to only 41 law centres today. This has been exasperated by the ever-shrinking scope of legal aid, starkly demonstrated in the area of housing law, where legal aid is only available where a disrepair issue has become serious enough to impact on the health of the occupant. By the time such a scenario arises, it is far too late and legal aid should have intervened sooner to ensure the occupants health could never have been endangered in the first place.
Why does it matter?
Legal aid is a fundamental pillar of society and forms the bedrock of a democracy supported by the rule of law. Without legal aid, only the wealthy will have the capability to enforce their rights. The most vulnerable in society who often have the smallest voices are left unheard and are ignored, without a means to defend themselves against the state or those wishing to take advantage of this fact. Granted, the provision of legal aid is expensive for the government, especially considering the current economic climate with COVID-19 pushing UK government borrowing to a peacetime record high of £303 billion. It is understandable that the government would wish to cut back in any way it can. However, cutting back on legal aid is not the way to go about it and the ramifications of doing so would lead to dire consequences to society. Instead, legal aid should be regarded in the same light as free healthcare, it should be regarded as an essential service that must be upheld whatever the cost.
Sebastian Cheng is an Assistant Manager for the society’s Charities Department