Happy birthday, legal aid

64 years ago today legal aid was first introduced. Its purpose? To ensure that people would not be denied access to justice because of their inability to pay for a lawyer.

But is it such a happy birthday after all? If the government had its way, legal aid would quietly slip off into retirement. In April it announced proposals to strike another blow to both civil and criminal legal aid.  But the Justice Minister has had a run for his money. The consultation on these changes attracted 16,000 (yes, that’s right, 16,000) formal responses for officials to plough through, demonstrations outside the MOJ in June and widespread anger both in and outside parliament. Today, there will be marches in London and Manchester.  The reality is that legal aid is more popular than the government likes to admit.

Chris Grayling has been forced to u-turn on a key aspect of his criminal legal aid proposals. What’s more, instead of pushing straight ahead with implementation of the cuts, he has been obliged to look again at his proposals, announcing a further consultation in the autumn. So it looks like legal aid is not ready to retire after all.

One of the proposals is to cut legal aid for judicial review. It is claimed it is used to fund frivolous cases, but the evidence for this is lacking. For families that come to Shelter, legal aid means the difference between a roof over their heads or sleeping on the streets. When the worst happens and a family loses their home, they often approach the local authority for emergency accommodation. Some councils fail in their duties to accommodate homeless families and they are sent away when in fact they should be helped. Those families face imminent street homelessness. Legal aid is the funding that allows those in this situation to get legal advice and representation, to challenge the council and to stay off the streets.  About once every week Shelter issues proceedings to judicially review a local authority because of their failure to provide emergency accommodation to homeless families. In many more cases we threaten to issue proceedings but don’t need to go further because the council then concedes. We can only make the threat because we know legal aid enables us to carry it out if we need to. 

The MOJ impact assessment suggests this particular cut would save the MOJ around £1m of the £220 million it seeks to save. However it doesn’t seem to acknowledge the costs that would be shunted on to other departments, particularly to Social Services, if children end up on the streets. The MOJ may have ignored this, but it hasn’t passed everyone by. The Association of Directors of Children’s Services, the Local Government Association and the No Recourse to Public Funds Network have all highlighted it. In truth, it just doesn’t add up.