Legal aid is a way to offer legal advice and support to people who cannot afford to pay for it themselves. It has been one of the basic pillars of the welfare state since it came into being. But new changes that came into effect in early April in England and Wales have removed legal aid funding from various areas of civil law, including family disputes and social welfare benefits advice as well as housing and debt problems. The Government claims that resources are extremely tight and that spending on legal aid the way we have is no longer an option. According to official sources, the new cuts will save £350 million from a £2.1 billion budget.
Needless to say, there has been tremendous opposition to the cuts from various quarters. The bill itself was defeated 14 times before it was passed by a very slight margin and a tied vote. The president of the Supreme Court warned that the cuts would affect the legal system in damaging ways and that many people would end up having to take the law into their own hands. Indeed, representing oneself is now one of the options for those who will not receive legal aid.
The cuts have affected large chunks of civil disputes, but funding continues as before for some cases. Some cases that are no longer eligible to receive aid are housing, debt, personal injury, medical negligence, employment, and education as well as family disputes, including divorce and child custody. Funding continues for cases of asylum, mental health and housing disputes where people risk losing their homes immediately. Funding also continues for family law cases that involve domestic violence and child abuse, forced marriage or abduction. The risk of domestic violence or abuse will need to be evidenced by way of a letter from the GP or a Social Services assessment or any other satisfactory form of documentary evidence. Legal aid continues as before in family law cases that involve supervision proceedings or protection of children.
The main thrust of the cuts for family law cases is on divorce cases, financial settlement disputes and child custody disputes. This means that straightforward child custody and divorce settlement cases will no longer receive aid. Moving family disputes away from courts has long been on the agenda and for good reason. It seems counterintuitive and illogical to expect taxpayers to foot the bill for every failed marriage in the country. Also, divorce settlements and child custody settlements are better made out of court anyway. While cutting legal aid for divorce would address this problem in the long term and perhaps help move family disputes away from courts, would this be the most effective way to achieve this? Or would it simply mean that the wealthier partner essentially wins over one who cannot afford paid legal advice? In such a case, litigations would continue but the people who have the resources would be the ones litigating while the ones who have lesser resources and are more vulnerable would be the ones getting the short end of the stick. While the cuts may help reduce the number of divorce cases coming to court, it may well have a lopsided effect in favour of the better-off partner.
Those who cannot afford private legal advice will either have to represent themselves in court in case of litigation or seek help from a legal charity. As mentioned earlier, the most significant warning against the cuts came from the President of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger, who warned that the cuts would lead to economically un-empowered people taking the law into their own hands. According to Lord Neuberger, the biggest concern is that of the law being undermined as people begin to realise that they aren’t being given fair access to justice in a variety of civil cases.