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Big Debate: Legal aid

11:51 02 July 2014

Barristers and solicitors outside Southwark Crown Court protesting against government plans to cut fees as part of a bid to slash £220million from the legal aid budget by 2018/19. Picture: Stefan Rousseau

Barristers and solicitors outside Southwark Crown Court protesting against government plans to cut fees as part of a bid to slash £220million from the legal aid budget by 2018/19. Picture: Stefan Rousseau

PA Wire/Press Association Images

The ongoing dispute between lawyers and the government over changes to legal aid, the provision offered to people who would otherwise be unable to afford advice or representation, continues to raise questions about our legal system and ideas of justice and equal rights before the law.

George Woodhead, civil barrister and director of The Legal AideGeorge Woodhead, civil barrister and director of The Legal Aide

This week, civil barrister George Woodhead, Director of The Legal Aide, a legal training company run by barristers teaching people how to successfully represent themselves in court, and Justice Minister Shailesh Vara MP discuss whether the changes will help or hurt the British justice system.

George Woodhead

Civil Barrister, Director of The Legal Aide

Justice Minister Shailesh Vara MPJustice Minister Shailesh Vara MP

Access to justice is and must be a cornerstone of a truly free, fair and democratic country.

Legal reforms brought about last year have dealt a stinging sucker-punch to that, leaving many people lost in a legal wilderness of rules, jargon, and unaffordable expense.

2013 saw a hike in the small claims limit from £5,000 to £10,000 and the unashamed butchery of the legal aid budget for family cases.

A year on, the county courts are awash with people representing themselves.

Skills and knowledge that lawyers spend years studying and honing are taken up by those who cannot afford a lawyer but cannot afford to lose.

The consequences are worrying, for the parties, for the courts and for society at large.

In the small claims court, individuals and businesses scrum-down over sums equivalent to half their annual net income.

Court rules discourage the use of lawyers in the sense that the cost of having a lawyer can rarely be reclaimed by the winning party from the loser.

The problem is that most litigants in person are hardly likely to know the full extent of their legal rights, let alone how to pursue them.

It is certainly not the court’s job to present their case for them and simply being “right” is not enough to secure a successful, just outcome.

Legal advice charities run by volunteers can provide a valued crutch to litigants in person but their limited resources are stretched.

If the recent reforms are to stay - which they should not - then it is imperative that services for litigants in person improve. Training, educational resources and advice cannot be left to charities alone: the problem is too big and the principle of access to justice is too important.

There desperately needs to be more services for litigants in person.

If things stay as they are, we will surely witness the gradual destruction of what is considered by many to be the finest legal system in the world.

Shailesh Vara MP

Justice Minister

In recent years this country has been tackling an unprecedented financial challenge.

My department, the Ministry of Justice, was in a situation where we were paying for one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world - costing the taxpayer around £2billion every year.

We had come to a point where the court was becoming the first option for people to solve problems, regardless of whether it was best suited to resolve the issue.

To address the spiralling cost of legal aid, we looked at the type of cases where money was available and asked ourselves whether the system had gone too far.

Should the government be expected to pay for two lawyers to help a divorcing couple argue over who gets the family car?

Or to pay for a lawyer to help a prisoner make a legal complaint about the quality of their life in jail? We believe not.

What we have done in carrying out our reforms is to make sure anyone charged with a crime or questioned by the police still has access to a legally-aided lawyer where they cannot afford one themselves.

In civil and family cases we have made sure legal aid remains available for the cases where people most need it, such as where domestic violence is involved.

The simple fact is there have always been a significant number of people who represent themselves in the courtroom – they did in around half of all private law cases in 2012.

Judges and court staff are there to help people who represent themselves in court, by explaining procedures and what may be expected of them.

Even after all our reforms are completed we expect to spend a total of around £1.5billion each year – keeping it as one of the most generous legal aid schemes in the world.

What do you think? Vote in our poll to make your voice heard, or join the debate on Twitter @NewhamRecorder

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