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Monday, 15 April 2019

Shamina Begum, legal aid and the meaning of justice

Let’s get one thing clear. People who have the benefit of legal aid are not given a hand-out. They are not ‘given’ anything. The purpose of legal aid is, or was, to ensure that each party to a dispute have equal access to legal representation. Legal Aid, as we know it, was introduced in 1949 by the post war Labour government. Its stated purpose at the time was –

“to provide legal advice for those of slender means and resources, so that no one would be financially unable to prosecute a just and reasonable claim or defend a legal right; and to allow counsel and solicitors to be remunerated for their services”.

It is fair to say that this principle has been eroded over the years. Eligibility for Legal aid has been virtually wiped out for many citizens since 2013 under the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition. But the principle remains. For example, it was recently reported that in 2017 the Government had spent £4.2m on legal representation at inquests. At the same time just £92k was paid to families of victims by way of legal aid. Most people would agree that this is iniquitous.

The state provides legal aid so that all sides can have equal access to justice regardless of their wealth. What is the point of having legal rights if only the rich can access them?

And so to 19 year old Shamina Begum. It has been national news today,that she has been granted legal aid to contest the removal of her citizenship. It is very predictable that the Daily Mail has reported this as if it is some sort of hand-out. The rest of the media seems to have followed suit. Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is reported to be 'uncomfortable' with the decision to give her legal aid. That is the thing about justice. It isn't always comfortable. Comfort is not what it is about. 

This is not about her popularity. Access to Justice is not limited to those of whom we approve. It is possible to despise her and all that she stands for, and at the same time, acknowledge that there are important issues here that should be addressed by a court. This is an issue which should be a concern for us all. When, and under what circumstances, can out government remove person's citizenship? This is a matter for judges, not the media, to decide.  

Her citizenship has been removed by the state. The state is required to show that it has acted lawfully. That can only be achieved if Ms Begum and the state are equally represented. This is why we have scales of justice.

The test is this –

Does she require legal assistance? She does.
Can she afford it? Probably not but that is a statutory test, and a strict one at that.
Is the necessary work in scope? It is.

There is no requirement that a person be popular or to be considered deserving of help by the tabloid press. Justice is not a bag of money, it is a right.