Once-upon-a-time, the UK was recognised for its pioneering justice system, especially with its Legal Aid scheme that allowed vulnerable individuals to receive support from the government. This included assistance in meeting financial costs for legal advice, representation in court or tribunals, and many more. Since the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act in 2012, our reputation has never been as severely jeopardised as it is now…
The Government’s initial aim for the Act was to save money for our economy by cutting down on Legal Aid funds whilst delivering a better value for money from the legal services provided. This reform was believed to advance our justice system because it would discourage individuals to go to court on trivial situations and direct Legal Aid to those who needed it most, increasing the efficiency of our legal processes.
In an ideal world, these objectives should have been met and benefitted our access to justice. The reality of the situation, however, is more flawed. Rather than accomplishing those goals, unforeseen detrimental consequences have injured our legal system.
Reducing the funds for Legal Aid decreased the areas of law eligible to receive it. For instance, private law has been removed from being under its scope unless individuals are involved in domestic violence. Even then, a strict requirement of proof is needed to qualify for Legal Aid which heavily affects victims. Thousands of people who apply for Legal Aid for domestic abuse cases may be rejected due to lack of evidence.
There has also been an alarming increase in the number of individuals who represent themselves in court since the cuts in funds. Most litigants are not poor enough to be eligible for Legal Aid, but they are also not rich enough to afford a lawyer to represent them during hearings or trials in addition to court fees. They are disadvantaged and forced to fend for themselves.
It’s clear that the Act doesn’t work. Yet, despite the current drawbacks, our Government announced proposals to further cut funds from Legal Aid. This will only further endanger our access to justice, worsening the existing problems but also diminishing the public confidence in the legal system. It sends the wrong message that integrity and fairness can be sacrificed for the preservation of wealth.
What was once considered a pioneering legal system, will be known as biased and prejudiced to the less fortunate. This is hardly the happily-ever-after that the UK justice system should aspire for.