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‘One of the Great Pillars of the Post War Welfare State’

Date:5 MAY 2015
Lord Beecham could have been talking about the NHS but in fact he was talking about legal aid, introduced by the Legal Aid and Advice Act in 1949, and effectively dismantled by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offender’s Act 2012.

Shortly before the last election I scanned the manifestos of the main parties to see what was in store for legal aid in this country – already under significant threat. All three were silent on the subject. Bear in mind that Labour were in power at the time, and probably shy of emphasising their lack of intention to improve access to justice any time soon. And no-one expected the Conservatives to turn the tide.

Move on 5 years. How are the parties proposing to protect access to justice this time? I’ve read the manifestos and can report … nothing of any significance. With the honourable exception of the Green Party that proposes to restore legal aid funding. And the SNP because Scotland has kept Legal Aid anyway, along with free university education and a host of other benefits.

The rest? In the Labour Party Manifesto, there’s one sentence that might conceivably hint at an intention to restore Legal Aid. ‘We will make sure that access to legal representation, a cornerstone of our democracy, is not determined by personal wealth, but remains available to those that need it’. Given that it’s already no longer available to those that need it, one can’t help feeling sceptical. There’s lots of talk about victims of domestic violence and the Manifesto does say that access to Legal Aid for victims will be widened. Far more space in the Manifesto is devoted to support for the Leveson Report with its plan to make justice accessible for anyone libelled in the press. But those who need access to justice are far more likely to be worried about losing their children or their home than they are about libel.

What about the Conservatives? After all, this is the party (with support from their coalition partners) that effectively killed off civil Legal Aid.

There are references to ‘real fairness’, the protection of ‘British values’ and, as might be expected, lots on the NHS. What about this:

‘Access to justice is vitally important to all of us. Founded on the principle that no one should ever have to worry about their ability to pay for legal advice, it is a profound expression of our values as a nation.'
No, not really. That was a paragraph about the NHS and I’ve substituted a few of the words. But it could have been about access to justice, and might well have been if anyone cared.

The Conservatives also want to champion equal rights and correct wrongs while Labour plans to ‘stand up for citizens’ individual rights’. But how precisely is all this to be achieved if no one can afford to go to court to exercise their rights in the first place?

And then there are the Liberal Democrats. I would remind you that Simon Hughes was the Minister of Justice in the last Government. They’re going to carry out ‘an immediate review of civil Legal Aid … to ensure Legal Aid is available to all those who need it’. Why do I find this so hard to believe? Probably because they go on to talk about the provision of civil justice online and expansion of mediation (that old fig leaf) and to ‘develop a strategy that will deliver advice and legal support to help people with everyday problems like personal debt and social welfare issues’. Always a clue that they have no intention of doing anything more than moving a few deck chairs around the place.

How have we come to this? It’s not just the fault of disingenuous politicians aided and abetted by the media. We lawyers haven’t been strong enough and something very precious has been lost on our watch. The NHS has become a national treasure that no one dares criticize. Legal aid needed reform, of course it did. It had been neglected and run by people who should have known better for a number of years. But the solution was to reform it, not destroy it. Imagine if we abolished the NHS because it’s terribly expensive (true) and filled with incompetent managers (equally true). There would be a national outcry. After the war, there was a genuine sense that our citizens needed protection from oppressors, including oppressive governments. We seem to have lost that sense of justice, and it’s tragic.

The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.
Family Court Practice, The
Family Court Practice, The
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