We are now within a couple of months of the most wide ranging cuts in Legal Aid since it was introduced in the 1940s. I have gone on about this for months. There was widespread opposition to the cuts most of which fell on stony ground. So by April we will see huge areas of unmet legal need.
Politicians and the press have accused those lawyers who oppose the move of just protecting their own interests. The reality is brought home by the announcement by the Housing Charity, Shelter that their advice service faces closure with inevitable redundancies.
It is hard to overstate the importance of Shelter’s work. I remember back in the 1980s taking out an injunction to prevent a Local Authority from demolishing a Housing Estate to make way for a park. The case was backed by Shelter. Within an hour or so of the first slates being removed we were before a judge and the work was stopped before lunch. The estate is still there to this day. None of this would have been possible without the expertise and commitment of this Charity. It is nothing short of a scandal that ordinary people will find it impossible to get the support that they need.
I have talked before about initiatives to make lawyers pay for some form of legal aid by way of a levy and that is completely unrealistic –
And there are even suggestions that Law Students should be forced to carry out a minimum number of hours of free legal work before they can qualify. This system is already in force in New York –
This proposal would add insult to injury to a group of students who are already facing massive debts and poor prospects of finding work. What greater deterrent could there be than to impose another burden.
The reality is that any civilised society should guarantee access to justice to all regardless of wealth. Such access should be funded by that Society. Shelter will not be the last voluntary organization to face cuts.
When the reality hits home; when courts are overwhelmed with unrepresented parties and when MPs surgeries are full of disgruntled voters with nowhere else to go, maybe the government will begin to listen.