Happy 70th Birthday, Legal Aid!

Happy 70th Birthday, Legal Aid!

The aftermath of the Second World War saw the birth of our great welfare state. Four pillars provided the safety net people needed to ensure a minimum standard of living: decent and safe homes, healthcare for all, benefits for those struggling and education for children.

The unsung hero, which was never included in the welfare state’s four pillars, is legal aid, which celebrates its 70th birthday today.

While it may not feature in the top four, legal aid was, and is, fundamental in creating a society that valued equal opportunity and access to justice for all. The Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949, introduced under Prime Minister Clement Attlee, ensured people on low incomes were represented in the civil and criminal justice system.

Why we need it

We wouldn’t be able to support our clients without legal aid. Last year, we helped 7,706 households facing bad housing or homelessness thanks to legal aid. Across the country, our solicitors are able to prevent evictions, review unlawful homelessness decisions and help those living with appalling disrepair. Without legal aid, we wouldn’t be able to do this work.

It’s because of legal aid that we were able to help Lauren from Manchester, who was heavily pregnant when she was evicted from her private rented property along with her partner and two children. When the council told her that she had made herself ‘intentionally homeless’, she turned to Shelter to challenge their decision. A solicitor was able to mount a challenge – which eventually led to Lauren being securely rehoused – thanks to legal aid.

“We wouldn’t be where we are now without Shelter. I know it made a whole lot of difference to us getting Shelter involved. I knew what I was talking about, I knew the council were wrong and that’s why I didn’t give up, but the council wouldn’t change their decision until Shelter got involved.”

Lauren from Manchester

The problem

Sadly, this year will not mark a very happy birthday for legal aid. Despite being integral to the functioning of a modern and decent society, legislative changes over the past years have resulted in fewer and fewer people having access to justice.

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) removed a raft of legal issues from the scope of legal aid, leaving our solicitors unable to provide holistic support to those who need help. LASPO has made it more difficult and time-consuming for us to help people. The reductions in legal aid have had a negative impact on our clients’ outcomes and have increased pressure on the courts. 

Cuts to legal aid have inevitably led to providers of advice closing their doors, creating advice deserts in parts of the country.

Even the Ministry of Justice’s own review into the impact of LASPO admitted that the changes failed to ensure that legal aid is available to society’s most vulnerable, and that cost savings from reductions in legal aid may have put pressure on the public purse elsewhere.

Jo Underwood, the managing solicitor in our strategic litigation team, recently wrote about the impact of the cuts on solicitors themselves, as well as to their clients. LASPO’s impact is far-reaching, exhausting, and crippling. 

The solution

If legal aid provision is not restored, people will continue to be locked out of accessing justice.

Changes must be made to reverse the damage caused by LASPO. We call upon the new Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland QC, to urgently review the current provision of legal aid and consider bringing back legal aid for:

  • early advice for housing issues, to stop a small problem escalating into a full-blown crisis
  • benefits and debt to be brought back in scope, so that people can avoid not just rent and mortgage arrears, but also crippling financial and personal hardship
  • make the means test for civil legal aid easier to apply

We wish legal aid a very happy 70th birthday, and we’re grateful for all the ways it allows us to help our clients. We wish, however, that the Ministry of Justice gives it the birthday present it so needs – a meaningful review, expanded scope and proper investment.