A Brief History Of Legal Aid In England & Wales

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A Brief History Of Legal Aid In England & Wales

This has been a much debated topic in 2013 as the coalition government’s controversial LASPO (Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012) reform came into force early in the year.

Historically, the concept of a legal aidsystem was created under the Legal Advice and Assistance Act 1949, with the intention of providing a comprehensive, state-funded system, enabling (predominantly) poorer citizens in need of the service to benefit from it. The scheme operated for the subsequent 50 or so years, offering legal aid to up to 80% of the population at its peak, and down to 29% during its least successful period.

The system was designed to be available in all courts under some of the following conditions:

  • It shouldn’t be available just for poorer citizens but a wider group living on varied monthly incomes
  • The service is free for those people who couldn’t afford legal aid by their own means
  • Those who can afford to contribute something towards the costs will be judged on a reasonable monetary scale
  • Available across the width and breadth of England and Wales, from Southampton to Swansea

Before LASPO came into effect it covered criminal as well as civil legal aid cases, offering services such as free legal advice and/or court representation by a solicitor for the former, and initial help, advice and assistance particularly with family disputes, for the latter.

Thanks to government spending cuts, this LASPO reformation has changed people’s eligibility for legal aid, excluding all but the poorest in England and Wales. Many people who are on income-related benefits may not be entitled now, nor will those who have more capital.

Some of the major cuts and reformation changes are as follows:

  • Common private family law cases, for example divorce, will now only be considered if there is evidence of domestic violence or child abuse
  • Employment law cases won’t be included, aside for those extreme circumstances where the claimant is a victim of human trafficking
  • Almost all clinical negligence cases have been withdrawn from any funding and the only debt-related cases included are those in which there is an immediate risk to the home
  • Welfare-related and educational cases are also limited in terms of what legal aid is available now too

The main objections to these cuts are that the weakest and most vulnerable people in society will be the most negatively affected, including women, the elderly, black, Asian and ethnic minorities. And the new reformation is seen to be flouting and undermining the rule of law.

The future for legal aid is still uncertain, with prisoners and migrants being unable to receive legal aid, plus fees normally paid to legal aid solicitors and barristers severely reduced by almost 50% in many cases. The tendering of criminal defence work may also pose problems for young and junior lawyers who are trying to establish themselves with their most vulnerable clients. We can only wait and see how this new legal aid system pans out.

By Harry Price

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