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Paying down the deficit means regressing our justice system back to the 13th century

The vicious cuts to legal aid have stripped back the British justice system to its very bare bones, justified by thin, made-up excuses to take away the legal rights of the poor. Court rooms are being dragged down from bastions of legal thought and the concomitant of 1,000 years of jurisprudential evolution to 13th century slinging contest-rooms. 

The Ministry of Justice has all but admitted that the vicious cuts implemented by the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) have stripped back the British justice system to its very bare bones.

The ability of every single citizen to pursue justice in a Court of law is a fundamental cornerstone of British society. We are all supposed to be equal before the law and we all are supposed to have access to the same legal resources when bringing or defending claims.

Much has been made of the cuts to criminal legal aid. Less, perhaps, has been made of the cuts to civil legal aid funding.

In its LASPO Post Legislative Memorandum, the Ministry of Justice promulgated the pernicious falsehood that civil claims are the reserve of vexatious, serial litigants; justifying the cuts to legal aid as being designed to: “discourage unnecessary and adversarial litigation at public expense”

This serves to exacerbate the image of civil law as encompassing ambulance chasers and “suffered-an-accident-that’s-not-your-fault?” suers. It’s a neat package that refrains from bringing into mind those that rely on civil law to ensure their social housing is safe, to challenge unfair social security decisions and to challenge unscrupulous bosses at tribunal.

Gutting civil legal aid leaves consumers open to be cut down in court by the expensive legal teams, or even not-so-expensive legal teams, of bad credit lenders and the like. There is no consumer protection when the legislation cannot be properly applied and its rules enforced because people aren’t in a position to be able to properly argue the law.

And in the same vein, the cuts were supposed to: “target legal aid to those who need it most”

You may recognise this, of course, as utter drivel. Reducing the overall amount of legal aid by 38% each year between 2010 and 2017 does nothing to target where the remaining money goes. It simply means there is less money overall. That percentage equates to £950m, a figure that is huge in terms of legal aid available to potential litigants, but absolutely minuscule in the context of the national budget.

Barristers and solicitors are servants of the Court. They exist to ensure that disputes between private citizens are filtered through the prism of the law, so that what is argued has grounding in the law and the irrelevant ‘guff’ that might comprise people’s disagreements is left out. Lawyers have the necessary training and access to the same resources as each other, so that the beggar has the same chance of success in Court as the King.

The Government’s civil legal aid cuts focused on private family law proceedings, and the idea was that with warring couples having reduced access to legal aid funding, they would be less inclined to go to Court and would take up mediation instead. Better for them, better for society, better for the institution of marriage and better for the public purse, right?

Except, this was the same simple, pseudo-rational economic thinking that defines current Government ideas.

It’s a thin, made-up excuse to take rights under the law away from the poor.

It doesn’t take behaviour into account. A lack of legal aid is not going to stop two partners absolutely at loggerheads from going to Court and representing themselves, and then you’re left with a Judge overseeing a mud throwing contest.

The MoJ’s statistics bear this out. During 2012, there were 14,000 mediation starts. By 2017, 7,700. Why? Because while no funding isn’t going to stop acrimonious couples fighting, legal aid allows them to instruct solicitors who can tell them in the first place that mediation options actually exist. Take away legal aid; take away any options for resolving civil disputes.
During the same period, the number of people able to get advice on claiming benefits fell from 83,000 to 440. Overall, in 2012/’13 around 150,000 legal aid funding certificates were granted for civil matters, by 2017 the number is down 29% to 105,000. Look long enough and you start to see a picture of a country in which the poor are locked out of any recourse to the resources they need.

Dreamland predictions, that such cutting would miraculously cull only the most frivolous of litigation and those in need of the help would still receive it, has, of course, been proved utter bunk. All that has happened is that the Courts have become clogged with people representing themselves. The number of litigants in person has risen 520% since 2011.

While the Government cut legal aid funding from £2.51bn in 2010/’11 to £1.55bn in 2016/’17, there appears to be no proportionate change in the volume of civil litigation.

On top of this, Court rooms are being dragged down from bastions of legal thought and the concomitant of 1,000 years of jurisprudential evolution to 13th century slinging contest-rooms. The question everyone should ask is, if the price to pay is absolute destruction of the justice system that defines our civil society, what is the point of saving a few coins?

Cutting civil legal aid is perhaps one of the most dangerous things the Government has done. The law and the justice system relies on societal faith in it to survive. If its purpose as a more efficient, fairer and more neutral mode of resolving disputes than simply arguing is destroyed because cuts render it impotent, then faith in the justice system as an institution will wain.
Not only this, but it threatens the political impartiality of the judiciary and the enforceability of decisions. When money is tight, the risk increases that Judges may allow financial considerations to affect their judgments.

The British legal system is its crowning jewel. It serves as a beacon and a precedent the world over, and the Government is slowly grinding it into dust.

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