UK – Legal aid changes spark solicitor warnings

Solicitors have warned that people may start “taking the law into their own hands” as a result of changes made to legal aid in England and Wales.

The changes coming into force today sees public funding removed from entire areas of civil law, including some family cases.

The warning comes from the Law Society, which represents solicitors. Barristers have also expressed concern.

The government says it is safeguarding legal aid for those who really need it.

Ministers want to reduce the government’s £2.2bn legal aid bill by £350m.

The reforms are being made in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (Laspo).

Funding removed

Areas which will no longer qualify for funding include family cases where couples are divorcing and sorting out living arrangements for their children, unless there is proven domestic violence.

Advice on some employment and education law; personal injury and some clinical negligence cases; immigration where the person is not detained; and some debt and some housing problems will also no longer qualify.

Cases that will continue to receive funding include family law cases involving domestic violence; forced marriage or child abduction issues; mental health cases; asylum; and debt and housing matters where someone’s home is at immediate risk.

The Law Society says “people could start taking the law into their own hands as a result of an inability to seek justice following the government’s civil legal aid cuts”.

Richard Miller, head of legal aid at the organisation, said: “We have warned government consistently that, as well as all the knock-on costs, the social consequences will be damaging to the whole of society, not just the vulnerable who will take the worst hit of all.”

And the Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, said “vulnerable people will suffer”.

Chair Maura McGowan QC said: “As a result of Laspo, more people than ever before will find themselves going to court without legal representation.

“It is not just the view of the Bar – the judiciary, the broader legal profession and legal advice centres are all saying the same thing.

“We are faced with a situation whereby access to justice is no longer being adequately funded and vulnerable people will suffer.”

Expensive system

The UK’s most senior judge, Lord Neuberger, has previously said he has concerns about the legal aid cuts.

They could “start to undermine the rule of law because people will feel like the government isn’t giving them access to justice in all sorts of cases”, he said.

“And that will either lead to frustration and lack of confidence in the system, or it will lead to people taking the law into their own hands.”

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “We need to make sure taxpayers’ money is not spent resolving too many disputes in court, when there are quicker, cheaper and less stressful options available.

“At £2bn a year we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, and it’s now costing taxpayers too much at time when resources are not limitless.

“We had to make some difficult decisions, and it was not a process we embarked on lightly, but we have safeguarded legal aid to ensure lawyers are there for those who really need them.”

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