Legal Aid vs. Access to Justice
The concept of access to justice embodies the central idea that regardless of capabilities, all citizens shall have equal legal protections and the right to the enforcement of these protections. Therefore it is of paramount importance that those who require access to the legal system are not excluded on the basis of social or economic inequalities. However the Scottish Government’s legal aid budget in 2016-17 has been set at £126.1 million, the lowest it has been for well over a decade and displaying a 7% reduction from the 2015-16 budget. In addition, the introduction of tribunal fees and increasing cost of court litigation means that millions of people are unable to seek the legal advice they require, highlighting social inequality within our system.
Christine McLintock, president of the Law Society of Scotland, wrote that this budget is “clearly unrealistic” to “maintain an effective and sustainable legal aid system”, and fears these reforms have created a seriously damaging barrier to justice.
A recent survey shows that “only a quarter of the population believe that the UK’s Legal System is fair and transparent”, with two thirds feeling that wealth is now the key to legal representation. It seems the Government has lost sight of the importance of the legal aid fund for those who need it most and as a result, the system now appears confusing and discriminatory to many. These consequences are simply too high a price to pay.
Paul Wheelhouse, a Scottish National Party Member, assures the public that a review of the legal aid system will take place while working “closely with both the Scottish Legal Aid Board and the Law Society of Scotland to develop a more efficient and streamlined legal aid system.” Concerns that the system will mirror that of England and Wales, where access is also limited, were addressed as he emphasised the commitment to ‘maintaining the broad scope of legal aid, focussed on a demand led system’ in which ‘there is no anticipated negative impact on access to justice’. This is reassuring, however steps must be taken by the Government to avoid the unintended consequences, which are currently restricting access to legal representation and to the courts. It is accepted that access to justice must be subject to limitations, however it must not restrict access in such a way that the very essence of the right is impaired. Jeremy Corbin, the Labour leader, recently voiced his concerns over the withdrawal of legal aid for employment tribunals and various other areas of law, highlighting that legal aid is not an ‘economic benefit’, but a ‘basic human right’ which must be recognised.
Negotiations between the Legal Aid Board, The Government and The Law Society will be watched carefully, in the hope that the lack of civil justice funding will be corrected, resulting in a wider representation of social backgrounds in the courtroom.
Author: Kerri Nicoll, LLB Hons, currently studying the Diploma in Legal Practice
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm.View all →