Legal eagle: Government reviews Legal Aid

I have read that the Government is carrying out a review of Legal Aid. What does this mean?

Legal Aid is money paid by Government in some limited circumstances to lawyers to act for people with legal cases. The Legal Aid system used to cover a large percentage of the population and it supported lots of different types of cases. Over many years however the cases paid for have decreased in number and the financial means test you have to pass to get legal aid has got stricter. The Legal Aid scheme is a shadow of its former self.

In 2012 there were some particularly deep cuts. Recently Justice Secretary David Liddington – he is the politician in charge of Legal Aid – has said he will review these cuts. The idea of them was to save £450 million – a very large percentage of the entire Legal Aid spend.

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Mr Liddington wants see if those savings actually were achieved and whether or not the cuts have restricted access to justice.

Critics of the cuts include senior judges. Some say that due to the cuts people go to court without lawyers and because they do not know how to conduct their cases for themselves slow down the system making things difficult for other court users.

The figures are striking. In financial year 2005/2006 £2.6 billion was spent on Legal Aid. In 2016/2017 that was down to £1.5 billion. A drop of over 40% in spending much of which came after the 2012 cuts. In the 2016/2017 financial year the total figure for Government spending on everything was £780.3 billion. £1.5 billion is less than one fifth of 1 percent of that total or in figures 0.19%.

Another aspect of the access to justice debate is the way the civil courts system is now run. Government decided a few years back that civil courts should be self- financing –the courts should pay for themselves by charging fees. This policy means that fees have gone up a very large amount. In fact in the last financial year the courts made a surplus –or a profit – of £100 million.

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Some ask: is that what courts are for? To make profit? Or are courts there to allow people access to justice?

Between the Legal Aid cuts on the one hand and increasing court fees on the other getting access to the justice system is harder all the time.

Concerning the review - this is happening because a political commitment was made in 2012 to hold it. It isn’t to be expedited in spite of the many concerns about Legal Aid cuts. Government doesn’t plan to conclude it before summer of 2018.

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