We recently saw massive changes in the way legal aid works in England and Wales. In a bid to cut legal aid budgets by over £350 million pounds a year, the Government have made several changes to the system and cut the availability of legal aid to a variety of civil as well as criminal law cases. The changes came into force in April 2013 and are, as predicted, resulting in changes in the way people deal with legal matters and, more specifically, a rapid rise in the number of people having to represent themselves in court.
Areas of civil law that have faced cuts include family law, including child custody cases and divorce cases, personal injury litigation, and some areas of employment law, as well as some cases related to housing, benefits and debt. This means that a huge number of people who would have until now received legal representation are now basically left in the lurch. The two options available to them are either to hire a private lawyer for legal advice and representation or to explore resources, learn more about the law and fight their own battles in court.
The cuts had faced major opposition from various quarters. Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, had warned ahead of the changes that the proposed cuts and the lack of legal advice and representation in court would lead people to take the law into their own hands and that this would ultimately serve to undermine the rule of law. The UK’s more senior judge also warned that while the cuts are aimed at reducing spending, the impacts they would have would, in fact, prove more costly to the Government over the long term.
As expected, these cuts have already created and are continuing to create dry patches for legal assistance, and the people who need help the most are struggling to find professional legal advice. Even charities that have been working in the field have had to close down some of their advice centres. For instance, the housing charity Shelter recently closed down nine advice centres across England, as cuts in aid meant that they could no longer sustain the offices.
However, charities and pro bono law firms are the best bet for those who require legal help but cannot afford to hire private legal help. This means that the people who are the least equipped to afford assistance have become even more vulnerable, while those who can afford to pay for legal help are potentially in a stronger position. For many people, not being able to afford legal representation means being left with only one option – having to represent themselves, often with little or no experience or guidance on how to go about doing it.
So what are the consequences of having more and more people representing themselves in court? If cases are to progress and courts are to function smoothly, it is necessary for people fighting their own cases to have the support and guidance necessary. As predicted by Lord Neuberger and many critics of the cuts, more untrained people having to fight in courts will mean the need for more support staff in courts as well as the need for more judges.
The bill that resulted in these cuts to legal aid faced tremendous opposition – in fact, it was in the House of Lords 14 times. That the cuts will disempower the poorest and most vulnerable people in society was the main concern of the opposition – and now that the cuts have come into force and we are beginning to see the effects, this is exactly what seems to be happening.