Hundreds of thousands of people with family and housing law problems will no longer have access to free legal advice under government proposals announced Nov. 15.
Measures proposing the most drastic cuts to legal aid in its 60-year history would seek to reduce the number of civil law cases by 547,000 a year in what ministers describe as an attempt to save money and "discourage a culture of litigation".
"At more than £2bn per year, we currently have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world," said the justice minister, Jonathan Djanogly.
"In civil legal aid and private family law people are too often willing to hand over their personal problems to the state … there is a lack of appreciation of the implications of going to court. The need to make savings provides us with the impetus and urgency for change."
The proposals, published in a consultation paper today, suggest the removal of whole areas of law from the scope of public funding. Divorcing couples will no longer be able to receive free legal representation for court cases, other than in cases where there is domestic violence or forced marriage, in a change ministers say should encourage mediation.
Government figures estimate the move will reduce the number of cases by 265,000 per year. People facing homelessness, housing disrepair and antisocial behaviour will still be able to gain free legal advice.
But people with other housing problems will no longer get state help, despite a government statement acknowledging that these people are "more likely to be ill or disabled". This move means some 38,000 people per year will no longer able to access free legal help.
Other areas of legal advice previously covered by legal aid will be removed from public funding completely, including debt advice, social welfare and employment. Critics were swift to respond, saying the measures would hit the most vulnerable in society and prevent them from defending civil rights affected by cuts elsewhere.
"In an era of budget cuts, job losses and welfare reform that contains some pretty sharp sticks, what now happens to disabled people who fall foul of public and private bureaucracies?" said Richard Hawkes, chief executive of disability charity Scope. "The courts have traditionally been the last line of defence against poor, unfair and unlawful decisions."
Desmond Hudson, chief executive of the Law Society, said: "If the government persists with these proposals it would represent a sharp break from the long-standing bipartisan consensus that effective access to justice is essential to underpin the rule of law."
Experts say that the measures far outstrip cuts to legal aid put forward in the 1980s, the last time significant areas of law were removed from public funding.
"The cuts made under the Thatcher government pale in comparison," said Steve Hynes, director of Legal Action Group, which campaigns on legal aid. "One quarter of the people who get help from the legal aid system will no longer be able to.
"Social welfare law in particular is taking a pasting at a time when these people are suffering from cuts elsewhere. It's going to cause enormous damage. People won't get access to their civil rights. It's unjust."
Nicholas Green, chair of the Bar Council of England and Wales, which represents barristers, said: "The shrinkage of the justice system inevitably means a painful contraction of access to justice.
"The new thresholds for legal aid will mean that many who must be described as poor will be denied legal assistance when they come into contact with the courts at crisis points in their lives, about decisions going to the heart of their personal lives and those of their families."
The legal profession was gearing up to respond to the proposals today. Many of those who deliver legal aid services would lose their jobs as law centres and firms offering free advice would face closure under the measures.
In addition, all fees for legal aid lawyers would be cut by 10%. "The starting point is not what lawyers earn or how many lawyers there will be," said Djanogly. "The starting point is how much support the taxpayer should give for legal aid."
The proposals also remove all legal aid funding for personal injury and clinical negligence cases, suggesting that the costs of litigation could be found from alternative means, including "no win, no fee" arrangements and legal insurance.
But separate proposals published today suggest reforms to the funding of civil cases, following a review by the court of appeal judge Lord Justice Jackson, complicate the prospects of obtaining legal representation for poor people, lawyers said. The measures suggest reducing the costs of personal injury cases by taking legal fees out of the damages awarded to the injured person, rather than recovering additional funds from the losing party.
"No win, no fee has helped provide access to justice for injured people who cannot otherwise afford it," said the president of the Association of Personal Injuries Lawyers, Muiris Lyons. "Those who will be affected most [by these changes] are likely to be people suffering serious or catastrophic injury, where the damages involved are often very high."
But the government said the most serious cases across civil law would continue to be protected, with areas involving fundamental rights and loss of life or liberty still covered by legal aid.
The lord chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, said: "Legal aid will still routinely be available in civil and family cases where people's life or liberty is at stake, or where they are at risk of serious physical harm, or immediate loss of their home."
The changes come after years of attempts by the previous government to reform legal aid, which saw changes to the way legal aid was administered and a reduction in lawyers' pay.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
From The Guardian in the UK:
Posted by BA Haller at 6:19 PM