Clement Atlee’s post-war Labour government established many policies that remain central to British society even today- most famously the formation of the National Health Service in 1948, where every citizen can access free healthcare. In addition, Atlee’s government also oversaw the creation of Legal Aid in 1949, its aim being to assist the most disadvantaged within society, who without legal aid could not afford decent representation. However, in recent years cuts in legal aid have undercut its fundamental meaning and denied thousands access to legal representation.
Upon its foundation, the funding for legal aid allowed for 80% of the British population to be legally represented either free of charge or at an affordable rate. However, persistent cuts to this system meant that by 2007, only 27% of the population were eligible for legal aid services. These gradual but heavy cuts in funding continue to deny many of the population decent legal representation, especially affecting those on lower incomes. During David Cameron’s government the budget for legal aid fell to £1.5 billion by 2016 as further austerity measures came into play, with this figure being a huge 40% reduction from what it was in 2006.
Due to certain sectors of the law no longer being funded by legal aid, such as divorce / family law, employment and housing, access to justice has essentially been blocked off for those who cannot afford to pay for legal representation out of their own pocket.
Cuts to funding in housing law, which affects everything apart from when a claimant is in imminent danger of losing their home, will result in lower living conditions for society’s most vulnerable as they cannot access legal representation to stop their mistreatment. For example, a landlord may refuse to repair a tenant’s boiler, violating the Landlord and Tenant act of 1985. Since the tenant may not be able to afford legal representation which would challenge this violation, this problem is likely to go unresolved. As a result, the tenant’s standard of living will be lowered but since they are not in imminent danger of losing their home, they will be deemed ineligible to receive legal aid. This is one of many examples of how dramatic cuts to legal aid negatively affect society’s most vulnerable.
As well as cuts in legal aid in the housing, family and employment sectors, government cuts have also disproportionately affected where funding is arguably most needed: criminal justice. Many solicitors do not want to practice criminal law because it is not as profitable as other sectors.
Whilst the budget for criminal legal aid has dropped, the crime rate has generally remained the same. As a result, solicitors are not sufficiently incentivised to pick up criminal cases as a simple petty crime case would generally pay the same as a more complicated case, in which expert evidence may be needed, or the defendant has language difficulties, prolonging the case yet producing no additional payment. Therefore, many solicitors choose not to practice criminal law, since they feel they would offer a sub-standard service due to the extreme cuts to criminal legal aid.
Given that many people within society cannot afford their own legal representation, there are many that choose to represent themselves in court. In fact, between 2011 and 2017 the number of people representing themselves in court jumped by an astounding 520%.
In a survey conducted by the University of Birmingham, it was found that nearly two thirds of a sample of 200 defendants representing themselves in court did not have any A-level qualifications, and only 45% understood what was said in court. This disproportionately affects those who are most vulnerable as if their case is not eligible for legal aid funding, they may be forced to represent themselves in court and have the unlikely chance of success, whereas if they had access to legal representation the outcome of their case may be drastically improved.
It is obvious that legal aid funding must be increased as soon as possible. Access to legal representation should be a fundamental pillar of society, however this has been undermined by the government in the aim of cutting costs.
To put this into perspective, Canada spent $1 billion USD on legal aid in 2020, despite being ranked the 6th safest country in the world that year. However, the UK only spent £617 million on legal aid that year and was listed 39th safest place in the world to live. Whilst there are other factors that come into play when comparing the two countries, I believe that there is a correlation between these figures and decent legal representation ultimately leads to better living standards.
If the UK government were to once again devote a sustainable amount of funding to Legal Aid and reintroduce it to certain sectors of the law, this would greatly help both individuals and families from all around the country in getting the legal help they need. Instead, the in the year 2020-21 the Government devoted £55 billion to the defense industry and, more recently, spent £3 billion on almost 600 Ajax tank units which have been in production for 10 years, yet the MoD has yet to deliver one single deployable tank.
Unless Legal Aid receives funding once again, the British Justice system faces a great deal of danger. Drastic cuts in funding have hindered the ability of society’s most vulnerable to beat wrongdoings that are being done to them, wrongdoings which they can only beat if they have an unrealistic amount of money to do so.