UK Legal Aid Cuts Inspire Open Letter – and Super Heroes VideoNSRLP
Massive cuts to Legal Aid – civil, family and criminal – in the United Kingdom has led to a coalition including lawyers, judges, legal academics and psychologists who are speaking up about the harm caused to access to justice (read their “Open Letter” here http://www.theguardian.com/law/2015/may/01/legal-aid-cuts-threaten-very-democracy).
Legal Aid in the UK has fallen from £2bn ($3.7) a year in 2010 to £1.5bn ($2.75) today, a 25% reduction. This affects both civil and family litigants. In one area of civil law (employment law) legally aided cases fell from 16,154 to just six (yes, that’s 6) in the same period. We know from our intakes at the NSRLP that this is an area of law that includes many SRLs who cannot afford legal fees to bring forward complaints when they are dismissed or otherwise penalized at work.
Funding in family law cases has dropped by 60% over the last two years. Detailed data released by the Ministry of Justice for England and Wales (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/366575/legal-aid-statistics-2013-14.pdf) shows that the cuts are primarily affecting private cases brought under the UK Childrens’ Act (determining conflicts over custody and access) with 30,000 fewer legal aid certificates granted. Care proceedings (cases brought by the UK equivalents of Childrens’ Aid Societies) are less affected. Legal Aid is now only available for private family law cases where there is evidence of child abuse, child abduction or domestic violence – although domestic violence campaigners say that many of these cases are also being denied public assistance because they cannot meet the evidentiary burden. The decline in assistance for private family cases also affects litigants seeking financial orders for child or spousal support.
The Open Letter, which has 138 prominent professional signatories, puts these statistics into context.
“What the figures do not convey is the sheer human misery of being unable to get legal advice. GPs report a large increase in the number of patients who would have been assisted by advice on benefits, employment, debts and housing. Cuts to legal aid are literally making people sick.” (our italics)”
The Open Letter, released on May 1 just a few days before the UK General Election, also describes some of the wider consequences of cuts to Legal Aid. What is the impact of these drastic cuts on other social services, the authors ask? How many miscarriages of justice will follow the denial of legal assistance? Why would young lawyers want to practice family and civil law and confront such misery on a daily basis?
The same questions are as relevant here as Canada anticipates a Fall federal election. Many people are asking how we make access to justice an issue that elected representatives feel they must address.
The Open Letter ends with a statement that suggests a place to open the discussion with candidates of any party in the upcoming federal election.
“Access to justice is more than just a public good which we can choose to fund generously when we are told our economic fortunes allow. Without access to justice for all, inequalities take on a more dangerous edge which threatens the legitimacy of not just the justice system but our democracy.”
Looking for a great tool to get the conversation started within your group about the importance of bringing access to justice into the spotlight? Watch the “Legal Superheroes” video here http://www.theguardian.com/law/2015/may/01/open-letter-judges-peers-restore-legal-aid-incoming-government-justice)