07:57, September 28 67 0 theguardian.com

2018-09-28 07:57:05
Justice 'only for the wealthy': Law Society warns on legal aid cuts

It is increasingly difficult for defendants and claimants to find solicitors prepared to represent them due to government legal aid cuts, the Law Society has warned.

In a fiercely-worded attack on funding restrictions, Christina Blacklaws, the society’s president, said British justice now exists “only for the wealthy, or the small number on very low incomes lucky enough to find a solicitor willing and able to fight a mountain of red tape to secure legal aid”.

Public access to justice and the right to a fair trial has never been so restricted, according to the organisation which represents solicitors across England and Wales.

The Law Society’s report is published to coincide with the deadline on Friday for submissions to the Ministry of Justice’s review of the impact of the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO).

The report follows one of the most outspoken criticisms of legal aid cuts issued by a member of the senior judiciary. In a speech earlier this week, Lord Wilson, a supreme court judge, accused the government of dismantling the UK’s “precious system of legal aid”.

Blacklaws said: “The means test [imposed on those applying for legal aid] bites at such a low level and because more and more solicitors are giving up battling the bureaucracy and uneconomic rates of pay that accompany legal aid work, [there are] growing advice deserts across the country.

“If people cannot effectively enforce and defend their rights, then for all practical purposes those rights do not exist.”

Hundreds of thousands of people are no longer eligible for legal aid, she added, including victims of domestic abuse who cannot secure injunctions to protect themselves from harm if they cannot afford to pay required contributions.

“There is clear evidence that providing legal aid for early legal help, particularly in housing and family matters, is far more cost-effective than denying it,” Blacklaws said. “Just as people expect an NHS doctor to treat them when they fall sick – they should be able to get legal advice if they have a serious legal problem.

“The justice system is facing a cliff edge scenario; civil, family and criminal defence solicitors are part of an increasingly ageing profession. Government cuts mean there are not enough young lawyers entering fields of law covered by legal aid.”

Even those on the lowest incomes who should be eligible for legal aid are excluded from accessing justice if they have savings or assets such as the roof over their head, the Law Society report says.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Ensuring everyone can resolve legal problems is vital to a just society and we are already conducting a wide-ranging, evidence based review of our reforms to legal aid.

“These reforms did not significantly change the availability of legal aid for criminal cases. Applicants can already apply to have their financial eligibility reviewed on the grounds of hardship where they are not granted legal aid in certain circumstances.”

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