There is one small but vital backwater of our public services that you won’t be hearing about in the election: legal aid. Not for nothing has it been called the ‘most friendless wing of the welfare state’.
It was the Attlee government that introduced our system of legal aid in 1949. The architects of the new system decreed that state funding shouldn’t be restricted to those people ‘normally classed as poor’ but should also include those of ‘small or moderate means’.
That scheme is now in danger of being reduced to a minority sink service. Eligibility for legal aid dropped from 80 per cent of the population in Attlee’s day to around two-thirds by the mid-1980s. But the steepest decline has come under New Labour. According to the Ministry of Justice’s latest figures, fewer than one in three of us (29 per cent) now qualify for help. The whole scheme survives on a fixed budget of £2 billion – and even that small sum is too dear for both of the main parties.
Crisis is now endemic to legal aid since a fixed budget was imposed in 1999. Social welfare law – that is, welfare benefits, immigration, employment, housing, discrimination – is having the life squeezed out of it by a spiralling criminal budget. This was an entirely foreseeable consequence of ‘tough on crime and forget about the causes of crime’ government policy and 13 years of relentless law-making (there have been more than 60 new pieces of criminal justice legislation since 1997).
But why should we care? It’s tricky, possibly impossible, defending a public service in these straitened times if it sounds like a charity appeal for lawyers. So instead of legal aid, let’s talk about ‘access to justice’, a notion that covers the ability of people to enforce our rights. This is not a plea to pay lawyers more money – far from it, there is excess in the system and some lawyers are paid way too much. It is a call for better education, more accessible information and, if needs be, easier access to the courts.
Equal access to justice should be regarded as a fundamental democratic right. Promoting it is about making sure we as a society are sufficiently literate about our rights to know when they are being abused and what to do if they are. It’s not about creating a generation of ‘compo crazy’, responsibility-shirking litigants.
But ‘access to justice’ is a hard sell. The Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland has reflected on the ‘Billy-no-mates’ status of publicly-funded law. Unlike schools or hospitals, legal aid seems ‘technical and remote to all but those who’ve had to use it’, he wrote in 2006.
That’s the point: we don’t appreciate the value of access to decent advice until we need it, and then it’s a life-saver. Where do you go when you are two months behind on your mortgage and your house is being repossessed, when you are made redundant without being told why, or, God forbid, banged up and falsely accused of a crime you didn’t commit?
I recall where I was when I understood that the ‘credit crunch’ was more than the latest irritating journalist cliché – that it was a phenomenon with real, human casualties. It was Dover County Court, one Wednesday morning in mid-April 2008. I was there in a professional capacity, writing an article for the Observer about ‘repossessions day’. District Judge Parnell had 35 cases to get through.
The court was an unprepossessing 1970s concrete block, but the scenario playing out in its waiting room was Dickensian. ‘People often arrive traumatised,’ Jacqui O’Carroll, a Citizens Advice Bureau advisor, told me. Outside the court anxious homeowners struck deals with mortgage company ‘agents’ (often trainee lawyers, instructed to act on the behalf of a company) to either pay back arrears in stages or give up their homes.
‘Homeowners arrive unsure of what’s going on, totally ill-informed, and prepared to lose everything because they think there’s no alternative,’ Jacqui said. The pressure is unbearable ‘especially from the less scrupulous providers who will insist they’ll get possession and even tell homeowners not to bother turning up’.
In Jacqui’s previous session she reckoned she prevented five people losing their homes. The dismal irony was that much of this pain was largely unnecessary. As she explained, borrowers are entitled to repay debts over the remaining period of a mortgage, no matter what lenders tell them. Many homeowners were handing over their keys or signing up to unrealistic repayment schemes for no good reason.
Three months later I was in a call centre in Birmingham for another Observer article (it’s not all glamour, you know). On this occasion I was reporting on the work of the National Debtline, a free helpline taking 500 calls a day. I mention this because although there is a fledgling version of a legal version of the National Debtline, it is under-resourced, under-promoted and under-used. I have often heard from lawyers and advisors that there is no substitute for face-to-face advice. I am not convinced.
As I listened to phone calls, many followed the same pattern. People have been putting off picking up the phone for months but as they talk through their problems anxiety gives away to relief. They realise they can keep their homes, sort their debts and life can return to normal. Sensible advice is followed by referrals to the internet and information packs dispatched in the post. We need a network of advice so that people don’t fall through the gaps and end up in places like Dover County Court signing their homes away to sharks, leading to more misery for themselves and their families and greater cost to society.
Jon Robins is a freelance journalist. www.jonrobins.info