Today is Justice for All day, intended to highlight the impact of the cuts to legal aid. The following is an attempt to dispel some of the myths surrounding the circumstances of the proposed cuts.
One of the justifications for the cuts is that an excessive amount of money from the legal aid budget goes into the pockets of legal aid lawyers. The average salary for a newly qualified legal aid lawyer is £25,000, considerably less than the average for those in private practice. The fixed fee for a legal aid solicitor running a welfare benefits case is £167, hardly an astronomical sum. This represents especially good value given that research has suggested that for each £1 of legal aid spent on welfare benefits the public purse is saved £8.80.
We are told that there is no alternative but to cut the legal aid budget. There is an alternative, which has been advocated by the members of the Justice Committee, known as the ‘polluter pays’ system. Under this system the government department that has caused a legal issue bears the cost of legal advice. In welfare benefits, where 67% of cases at tribunal are won by the claimant, and other areas, this could very feasibly create increased efficiency throughout the government and result in a better service for the public to enjoy as well as decreasing the cost of legal aid.
The third myth is that the UK spends more money on legal aid than any other country. It is not advisable to compare our legal system with that of other countries as we have a different legal system, which can be reformed to produce savings. What is left out of this equation is that our country has a fine history of protecting the vulnerable and making sure that they have access to justice, the focus on how much our present system costs means its value to our society as a whole is not fully considered.
We have also been informed that the removal of legal aid will not have an impact on access to justice as voluntary bodies will fill the gap. Credible research suggests otherwise.
Charitable organisations such as Law Centres and CAB are reliant on legal aid for 75% of their funding, with the majority of the rest coming from local authorities. With some local authorities facing a massive cut in their budgets many organisations are facing a cut to their funding from two sources. This means that it is very unlikely they will be in a position to take over from solicitors and also could lead to areas where local authorities have to make the biggest cuts becoming ‘Justice Deserts’.
While pro bono work (another mooted source of free legal advice) is laudable and essential it is no substitute for full time committed professionals. A survey of MP’s surgeries suggested many are not prepared for proposed changes that will result in a substantial increase in work for them, as a result the time spent helping out their constituents on other matters will be severely limited.
In order to protect legal aid, join the Sound Off For Justice campaign and contact your MP to let them know what your opinion of the legal aid changes is.