The legislation which effectively wipes out Legal aid for those of limited means received the Royal Assent in May and will come into force in April 2013.
The debate has already begun about where we go from here. What is to be done to try and protect access to justice for ordinary people? Do we simply give up and allow whole swathes of the population to try their hand at litigation in person, against wealthy insurers and public bodies? That is unthinkable.
Firstly I entirely support the views of the Legal Action Group (LAG) that there is still lobbying to be done. Writing in their June bulletin Director Steve Hynes says – ‘The Act is not the last word on what the legal aid system will look like as secondary legislation will now follow and there will be opportunities to influence this.’ He also points out that the government was persuaded to leave the door open to bring areas of work back into the scope of legal aid. This is certainly the view of Liverpool Law Society and we are continuing to meet with local elected representatives to makes this case and encouraging the national Law Society to continue the fight.
But in the short term it is inevitable that there will be areas of unmet need. This will include those most in need of assistance, such as those needing advice on welfare benefits.
One interesting if controversial proposal has come from the Law Centre’s Federation. They have proposed that the Law Society impose a levy on all solicitors of say £25 a head. The money raised would cover the cost of placing a lawyer in every Law Centre in the country. Law Centres do a fantastic job offering free legal assistance to those in greatest need. I spent three years in a Law Centre in Liverpool and saw first hand the important work that they do.
From a personal viewpoint I would be happy to pay this. If it means that the most vulnerable get access to professional advice then it seems a modest amount to pay. And it would improve the image of the profession who are usually portrayed by the media as being interested only in their own businesses. So to that extent I would support it.
But I can also see why others would object. Lawyers already do huge amounts of unpaid work – from giving free initial advice to giving voluntary advice at CABs and Law Centres. So why should they have to go even further to lessen the effect of the governments policies? The government will see it as a job well done if they have dismantled the legal aid system and the lawyers pick up the bill. So I can see real and justified opposition. This is going to be an ongoing debate as we regroup and continue the fight for people’s rights.