The slow, slow death of legal aid and the erosion of fairness before the law

Many years ago US President Ronald Reagan said that the nine most terrifying words in the English language were: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help …”. I don’t agree with him. In a truly progressive and compassionate society, government can and should be a force for good and progress, protecting the weak, marginalised and poor.

Having lived in a country, apartheid South Africa, where the government of the day helped the white minority, at a huge cost to the black majority, Because of that experience, I am a firm believer that all should be treated fairly before the law, that no one, because of the colour of their skin, gender, sexual orientation and/or wealth, should have an unfair advantage.

Of course this is an aspiration yet to be achieved here in the UK. Small steps forward are taken every few years, but there is still a way to go, not least regarding wealth. The poor are less likely to be able to afford legal representation and cannot, therefore, be regarded as equal before the law.

“But that is why there is legal aid”, I hear you cry. Absolutely. Help with legal costs must be one of the measures the UK should be most proud of. But, why then, is it being eroded before our very eyes, a process begun under the last government and accelerated under the current one.

Figures released this month by the Ministry of Justice show an alarming trend in the legal help being offered. The number of legal aid providers has collapsed, year or year, as the following MoJ statistics show:

Welfare Benefit legal aid providers

  • 2011/12          359
  • 2012/13          345
  • 2013/14           11 (Only 1 is a ‘not for profit’ provider, the remaining 10 are solicitors).

Debt legal aid providers:

  • 2011/12          356
  • 2012/13          337
  • 2013/14           51 (Only 12 are ‘not for profit’ providers, the remaining 39 are solicitors).

Employment legal aid providers:

  • 2011/12          179
  • 2012/13          169
  • 2013/14             8 (there are no ‘not for profit’ providers, all 8 are solicitors).

Housing legal aid providers:

  • 2011/12          530
  • 2012/13          509
  • 2013/14          228 (18 are ‘not for profit’ providers, the remaining 210 are solicitors).

Of course BHT has an interest in this. We used to provide welfare benefit and debt legal help, but are no longer funded to do this. The number of our housing cases for which we are funded has fallen. In Brighton and Hove, for example, we used to be funded to take on 1,450 ‘Matters’ in a year. This has been reduced to 590 at the very time when the housing crisis is deepening.

As it happens, I have never been a great fan of the legal aid system in the way in which it is administered by government. It is overly complex, cases are paid in arrears (thereby putting great demands on cash in charities such as BHT), and it is very bureaucratic and costly to administer by government and providers.

On the other hand, through Social Welfare Law, it has provided excellent value for money through its impact, preventing homelessness, hospital admissions, poverty and suffering.

It could be so much better if there was a shift away from its understandable focus on purely legal remedies and content, to a problem solving approach.

But, today, that is just a pipe dream. Today we are witnessing the slow, slow death of legal aid and the erosion of fairness before the law.

The priority should be that post 2015, whatever government is elected, politicians understand the importance of equality before the law, and that legal representation, regardless of ability to pay, is its cornerstone.

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