To say that this year’s legal aid cuts and changes to eligibility were contentious is something of an understatement – in June, hundreds of solicitors protested outside the Ministry of Justice condemning cuts and reforms to the system. The aim, the MoJ have said from the outset, is to make multi-million pound savings on a £2.1bn annual spend – one of the highest in the world.
After raising a few eyebrows (to put it mildly), the cuts have come under renewed criticism from the Human Rights Joint Committee who, this month, claimed that the legal aid changes in their current state (including their knock-on effects to those most in need) breach human rights.
Good Intentions – But Are Changes To Broad?
Justice Minister Lord McNally has said that the intentions behind the changes to date are to provide a legal aid system that concentrates on those most in need – but with the added challenge of doing so in a department that’s faced a 23% cut in its budget, with a further 10% since that initial cut.
However, critics argue that these changes are far too broad – the initial good intentions of improving efficiency and reducing overspending have swept in with it a whole slew of scenarios where those who are most in need are actually those who are suffering.
In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s ‘Law In Action’, former Lord Justice of Appeal Sir Anthony Hooper said: “There are many vulnerable defendants, people with mental problems [who] are likely to have a family solicitor – someone whom they can trust. That solicitor cannot look after them in the criminal courts unless they go private.
“This is not really an option – those solicitors will simply disappear.”
In a report released by the Human Rights Joint Committee on the 11th December 2013, which you can view in full here, the committee expressed concerns that the measures with a ‘legitimate aim’ were still capable of breaching human rights by being ‘widely drawn’ and affecting too broad a number of cases.
Dr Hywel Franics, a member of the committee, said: “We are particularly worried about the impact of the residence test on vulnerable groups such as children or victims of domestic violence”.
The committee also expressed concerns regarding legal aid available to prisoners, particularly those with mental conditions or mothers with babies, saying it should be available to these groups as ‘a matter of urgency’.
Dr Francis added: “We do not accept that individuals who have suffered abuse whilst being detained by the state, so as to breach article 3, should not be eligible for legal aid in order to pursue compensation.”
What Effects Have Cuts Had So Far?
Earlier this year Justice Minister Lord McNally said that the alleged ‘damage or destruction’ forecast by many solicitors, legal firms and retired judges had not come to fruition – however, some may argue that it’s potentially too early to call victory, as this statement was made just three months into the implementation of the changes.
In a number of press interviews, firms have expressed some concern over real examples of cases they’re come across which have been negatively affected by the changes in the last six months or so. As an example, one family barrister told the BBC that a civil case involving custody/contact disputes between a mother and father, involving their four year old son.
The barrister said: “The four-year-old was very unsure about where he lived and who he lived with. Prior to 1 April the mother could have got legal aid but now she probably doesn’t get it.”
Another lawyer expressed the problematic nature of victims of domestic abuse requiring proof before they receive medical aid for family cases – the firm had a case where they had to send a woman away as the lack of medical proof meant she was not eligible for legal aid, but she also could not afford the legal fees.
Both the Bar Council and the Ministry of Justice are at now at loggerheads, with both sides claiming each other’s arguments and views about the impact of the cuts are ridiculous – Lord McNally has described the Bar Council’s stance as unrealistic and hysterical.
Whatever the views, there’s no denying that solicitors and firms are having to adapt to lowers fees and a huge change in the system. Firms who do offer their services under the Legal Aid scheme are obviously committed to ensuring justice with quality advice and representation regardless of the changes – but the changes do place a strain on the profession.