So the MOJ’s consultation, Transforming Legal Aid, has dominated the legal headlines of late. And how could it not? Cuts of £220 million is excessive in any sector, but to ‘save’ £220 million in legal aid just seems fundamentally flawed!
It has been argued that the cuts to legal aid will lead to an increase in ‘litigants in person’. With limits being placed on who can claim legal aid, it seems inevitable that those unable to fund representation will have to defend themselves. So a round of applause for Mr Grayling; in an attempt to save money and cut the costs of litigation by no longer allowing certain types of case to be eligible for legal aid (family, employment, clin neg etc), he has actually ensured that those embroiled in bitter family disputes, who do not have access to legal aid, will now choose to represent themselves. And this will lead to longer hearings, as inexperienced individuals seek to fight a case that they have no hope of winning. Evidence will be sketchy. Cases that go on up and down the country, unnoticed and unreported, will suddenly start to drag out as the effects of the cuts start to hit home. Longer hearings = an increase in costs. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this undermines the idea of ‘saving’. Some law centres offering legal advice on the cheap, charging as little as £160 to prevent a family from being evicted, have rightly pointed out that the cost of a family becoming homeless can be between £15-30,000. So remind me again how cutting family disputes from legal aid is going to save money?
Another point; the eligibility threshold of £37,500. You cannot simply put a threshold in place and assume that those above it are financially secure. Costs of living are increasing on a daily basis, and with the average house price in London soaring past £500,000, a very respectable income of £37,500 isn’t what it used to be. Let us use the nuclear family as an example; 2 parents, 2 children. A common set up in modern society. Placing a threshold on eligibility does not consider these factors. It seems preposterous that Grayling can be so naïve as to suggest that all those earning in excess of £37,000 have the financial means to mount a serious legal challenge.
Grayling has stated that “the legal sector cannot be excluded from the government’s commitment to getting better value for taxpayers’ money”. This sort of black comedy wouldn’t be out of place in a Shakespearean tragedy. Commitment to better value for taxpayers money; by investing a further £10billion (£1billion short of the savings required by 2016 ironically) in the controversial HS2 railway plans. An excellent use of taxpayers money, I’m sure… (Sarcasm absolutely intended).
I had planned on going in to depth, discussing the proposals at length. But as I write this and the reality of the cuts becomes apparent, I have to suppress a grim laugh as the cracks in the foundations become increasingly apparent. It will be a sad day for the UK justice system if these proposals are implemented. Restrictions on who can and cannot apply for legal aid, denying those who have little connection to our country, restricting the type of cases eligible for legal aid… It just seems wrong. And also in violation of Article 6 of the ECHR (but that’s for another day…). For the love of all that is right, please… Save UK justice!