The future of legal aid reforms a false economy?

Monday 13 June 2011

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Haldane Society and Young Legal Aid Lawyers release independent report argues that cutting legal aid is "a false economy" ahead of expected government announcement on legal aid reforms. The report was supported by Garden Court Chambers. Barristers involved in the production of the report include Liz Davies, Richard Harvey, Anna Morris, David Renton, and Marina Sergides.

A panel of independent experts have concluded that cutting legal aid will not bring the savings to Government spending that Ken Clarke hopes.

Unequal before the law? The future of legal aid sets out the findings of a 'Commission of Inquiry into Legal Aid'. The Commission comprises Evan Harris, former Liberal Democrat MP, Diana Holland, assistant general secretary of the trade union Unite, and the Reverend Professor Nicholas Sagovsky, until recently the canon of Westminster Abbey. These three non-partisan and independent-minded experts, each with a long track record of promoting social justice, considered the cases both for and against legal aid.

Their purpose was to consider objectively, at a time of cuts to public spending including proposals to remove £350 million from the £2.1 billion legal aid budget (see over), the value of the safety net which our legal aid system provides for the ordinary people, sometimes poor and usually vulnerable, who rely upon it.

'Without legal aid I would not have been able to get the help I needed. I would have either been forced back into an abusive relationship or had to move to a refuge with my two children.'
SH, written evidence to the Commission of Inquiry into legal aid

On 2 February 2011 the Commission took part in a live session at the House of Commons and heard from ordinary people who had received help under the legal aid scheme including the victims of domestic abuse (such as 'SH'), destitute asylum seekers, individuals with mental health problems and those who had experienced debt and homelessness.

EP described how legal aid helped her escape her abusive and domineering husband and gain custody of their children. Mrs Whitehouse expressed gratitude for the legal aid lawyers who had helped her stay in her home of nearly 50 years. The Commission heard how people facing such problems in the future may find themselves unable to obtain advice or representation if the government reforms are brought in unchanged.

During its inquiry the Commission also considered evidence from groups such as Liberty and the Child Poverty Action Group as well as submissions from a wide range of organizations such as the Ministry of Justice, Policy Exchange and The Adam Smith Institute.

The Commission made seven findings (see over). Unequal before the law? publishes those findings, the individual testimonies and the submissions that they considered.

Evan Harris, Diana Holland and Reverend Nicholas Sagovsky said:

'Legal aid is vital in protecting the rights of vulnerable people... many of those who receive legal aid are among the most vulnerable in society. They include the elderly, the disabled, the abused, children and the mentally ill. They each have legal rights which they would not have been able to enforce without legal aid.'

'Legal aid is vital in upholding the rule of law... There can be no semblance of equality before the law when those who cannot afford to pay a lawyer privately go unrepresented or receive a worse kind representation than those who can.'

'Legal aid is essential to holding the state to account...It would be wrong in principle for the state to tolerate bad-decision making while at the same time removing the ability of ordinary people to hold those bodies to account for their mistakes by reducing legal aid.'

'Cutting legal aid is a false economy... When coupled with the human cost to the vulnerable and socially excluded of reducing legal aid, the panel finds these increased economic costs are unacceptable.'

Having considered the evidence the Commission made seven key findings:

  • Legal aid is vital to protecting the rights of vulnerable people
  • Legal aid is vital to upholding the rule of law
  • Legal aid is essential to holding the state to account
  • Cutting legal aid is a false economy
  • A holistic approach is needed in providing legal aid
  • Cuts to legal aid will drive out committed lawyers
  • Cutting legal aid is not a fair or effective way to reduce unnecessary litigation.

Unequal before the law? The future of legal aid is published by Solicitors Journal and the research company Jures as part of the Justice Gap series.

Download the full report here

Liz Davies, Richard Harvey, Anna Morris, David Renton, and Marina Sergides are barristers at Garden Court Chambers.

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