Legal aid gets a bad press from politicians and the right-wing media. But the £350 million proposed cut from the legal aid budget of £2.1 billion isn’t going to hit ‘fat cat’ lawyers. It’s the public who will suffer as access to free advice and representation on housing, family, immigration and asylum cases is slashed.
As far as public services go, traditionally it’s hard to convince the public to fight for legal aid. Given that only 29 per cent of the population are entitled to receive such aid if they have a legal problem, the public might wonder why they should campaign for a service that most of them anyway can’t use.
Legal aid is paid to lawyers in private practice, a consequence of the 1945 Labour government failing to bite the bullet and establish a National Legal Service. Lawyers tend to get a bad press, and there are a few top criminal barristers who earn substantial amounts. However, legal aid lawyers aren’t fat cats. The average salary of a legal aid lawyer in 2009 was £25,000.
A further difficulty in gathering public support for legal aid is that it pays for hard cases, many of which feel far removed from the everyday lives of taxpayers. If you read the Daily Mail, the only people who receive legal aid are asylum seekers, prisoners or foreigners. But they have rights, as does anyone facing criminal charges, having to deal with a difficult divorce or fighting to keep a home from being repossessed.
Moreover, no one is entitled to receive civil legal aid for cases without merit. There isn’t a merits test for criminal legal aid – and that’s entirely right. When someone’s liberty is at stake, it’s for magistrates or a jury to decide if he or she is guilty, not anonymous legal aid officials deciding whether he or she should get legal representation.
Despite the bad press it gets, though, campaigns to save legal aid are beginning to gain wider public support, broadening out beyond the legal profession. That’s because legal aid is a bit like the NHS – nobody wants to have to use it, but we know that if we are made redundant, can’t afford our rent or mortgage, or have a difficult family break-up, we need legally-aided advice and representation. We’re glad it’s there.
Save Legal Aid (www.savelegalaid.org) is supported by organisations representing legal aid practitioners. Together with Unite and Citizens’ Advice Bureaux, it has set up Justice for All to defence existing legal aid and advice services. A launch is planned for early December 2010.
The Haldane Society (www.haldane.org), together with Young Legal Aid Lawyers (www.younglegalaidlawyers.org), is holding an inquiry into the case for legal aid on 2 February 2011. The event will contain testimony from people who have benefited from legal aid, as well as those who were refused legal aid and couldn’t afford a lawyer.
Campaigns to defend and extend legal aid should be integral parts of campaigns to defend public services. If our campaign doesn’t reach beyond the legal profession, we won’t succeed. We need trade unions, anti-cuts groups, community and voluntary groups to be campaigning as vigorously against legal aid cuts as they do for all the other public services.
Liz Davies is chair of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and a barrister specialising in housing and homelessness law. She writes here in a personal capacity