Ever since legal aid was first introduced in England and Wales back in 1949, many people believe that this fund, which is paid for by the tax-payer, has increasingly continued to move away from the fundamental principles by which it was first established to serve. Indeed, the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, has established a consultation period for extensive changes to the legal aid system and has stated that one of the most worrying reasons for this is down to the fact that legal aid is accessible in cases where court intervention may not have been the best way forward. It has been recognised that other dispute resolution services may have produced far better results and at a fraction of the cost to the legal aid fund.
England and Wales have a £2 billion legal aid cost each year and this is apparently one of the most expensive in the entire world. Despite the fact that previous administrations have attempted to address issues in the legal aid system more than 30 times since 2006 alone, there has not been a significant review undertaken on the system.
Of course, Mr Clarke fully admits that this review of the legal aid system falls very neatly in line with the bout of spending cuts that are affecting every area of public funding. A 23% cut has been handed down to him and this reform seeks to kill two birds with one stone. Obviously, the cost of legal aid is continuing to spiral out of control and a tight rein needs to be applied here; but also it is quite strongly believed that there are some areas of civil litigation, especially, that need to be scrutinised more closely, in order to determine if it is in the public’s interest to continue to fund them through the legal aid purse.
We will all recall how legal aid was stopped for personal injury claims back in 2000. Well, it would appear that this area of law is still under further scrutiny, as the government seems to be looking to prevent the “no win no fee” culture that has crept into our society. They believe that attention must be placed on cases that have little merit or chance of success, yet when claimants are not concerned with the costs that may be incurred because this is something that would only be of concern to the defendant.
There are a number of important areas of law that may well be withdrawn from the legal aid fund if these proposals are all introduced. These include the likes of employment law, debt law and housing law. It has been stated that access to legal aid will not be available in these cases except where an individual’s liberty is at stake or where they may be threatened with homelessness. It is important to note that access to free legal advice in criminal cases should remain unchanged.
Even before these proposals were announced, as I have worked for Community Legal Advice in the past, I can recall how the government was desperately trying to steer people towards using this less expensive type of legal aid service. During my time working in housing law, the department expanded quickly and rapidly and this was showing no signs of abating when I left. Having taken a look at the consultation questionnaire regarding these proposed reforms to legal aid, I found it very interesting that a number of questions targeted responses on this type of service and could not help but feel that this is likely to be the main way forward for most legal aid cases in the future. Indeed, one of the questions on the questionnaire actually asks respondents for their views on this exact eventuality.
In many ways, this would work out to be a much more affordable method for running the legal aid service. All people are triaged before they are granted access to legal advice and then directed to the most applicable advocate for their case. This works out far cheaper than allowing clients to approach independent firms of solicitors that work within the legal aid scheme.