If legal aid is so fundamental to the operation of the legal system, then why is the budget being reduced on an annual basis? Over 600 people per month use the Law Society’s tool in search for a solicitor providing legal aid. The numbers of people requiring legal aid have not diminished, so why should the amount available for legal assistance be continuously on the decline?
Legal aid cuts are leading many to question their trust in the criminal justice system. Since 1994 inflation has risen by 87.15%, yet the legal aid budget has decreased by £5 million. How then does this fairly represent those who require legal aid and the solicitors providing it? Those that truly require legal aid may not be deemed ‘entitled’ to it and those who provide legal aid services may not be adequately reimbursed for their time.
Graham Matthews, President of the Law Society of Scotland has stated that access to justice remains a concern with the legal aid budget facing reductions every year. Essentially, a two-tier system has been created by this “legal aid red tape”. The arms of law are open to those who can afford it but for the vulnerable or deprived, access to justice is becoming increasingly restricted.
Many people, being denied legal aid and being unable to afford proper legal services are turning to representing themselves. As the number of self-represented cases increases as does the burden on the courts. Thus, the savings made in reducing the legal aid budget are negated by additional court expenses in unrepresented litigations.
Moreover, the number of firms offering legal aid has drastically reduced in recent years. The rates paid to solicitors for legal aid work is significantly below standard rates, meaning that often almost a quarter of a solicitors work on a legal aid case goes unpaid. Many firms, unsurprisingly simply cannot afford to take on legal aid in the current financial climate.
The reductions in the legal aid budget therefore again impact upon the poor and the vulnerable as a reduction in the number of practices offering legal aid means access to justice is continuously undermined. Many people cannot adequately represent themselves in court as they do not have access to case law or supporting documents to allow their case to succeed.
Legal aid no longer works as a safety net for the most vulnerable as it was originally introduced to do. As Blacklaws rightly said ‘If people cannot access advice or protect their rights, then effectively those rights do not exist”. It is therefore vital that in order to retain one of the most fundamental pillars of the modern legal system that we revitalise the system to ensure that those who need legal advice are provided with such as and when they need it, irrespective of wealth or status and that solicitors are properly rewarded for again balancing the scales of justice.
This blog post was written by Carly MacLeod, LLB (Hons), currently studying the Diploma in Professional Legal PracticeView all →