Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/571/7064
Crisis in the legal aid system
SINCE LAST summer five law centres have closed down, and a specialist welfare benefit appeals service has closed its doors after 24 years serving many of London's most vulnerable people. The London Advice Services Alliance (LASA) appeals team operated across 33 London boroughs, representing working-class people free at social security tribunals.
Legal Aid, which celebrates its sixtieth birthday this year, was a major concession won by the working class. It was designed to help ordinary people facing extraordinary problems - for example, on debt, welfare benefits, landlord and tenant problems, discrimination at work or community care needs.
At the time of its launch eight out of ten people were entitled to the scheme's assistance. The Ministry of Justice's latest figures reveal fewer than one in three of us are now eligible.
Most people don't think they will ever have to use legal aid. But as with the NHS, the idea is we all pay in, and people can obtain a legal representative's services to hopefully secure their rights, or defend against prosecution if they need to.
The legal aid scheme is part of the welfare state like the NHS and state education. But legal aid represents only 0.45% of public spending. The government currently spends £2 billion on publicly funded legal advice and representation, which would barely keep the NHS running for two weeks!
The problems got worse after the Community Legal Service (CLS) was launched in 2000. This New Labour initiative claimed that the Legal Services Commission (LSC) would help ensure a seamless network of legal information, advice and representation services nationally.
What the LSC did was bring in fixed fees for cases. The fees paid on legal help cases have shrunk since October 2007. Now lawyers are expected to complete complex cases on housing or social security within a tight price limit per case. If you do more work than the price - you do it for free. A legal help case in housing has a fixed fee of approximately £180 for the whole case.
Legal help claimants can try to move the case onto a 'public funding' (legal aid) certificate. This helps them more, giving the lawyer more scope to take court action and secure people their rights. But it is not always easy to obtain a legal aid certificate - the case must be at the right stage.
If it remains a 'legal help' case, legal representatives can do what they can within the fixed fee. The client potentially doesn't get a good service. If a client doesn't speak English, often the whole £180 is taken up by translating the story - any work after that is effectively free. So many law centres and solicitors' firms feel the squeeze. Law centres are closing and private firms no longer want this kind of work.
Legal services are now delivered through a tightly-controlled system of contracts. This bureaucratic system and its poor pay rates demoralise high street solicitors. Those who can are pulling out of this work.
The justice system has always favoured the rich and powerful. Fewer and fewer people are eligible for assistance under legal aid, and those that are find a system that cannot meet the demands placed on it. This hits working-class people most of all.
In The Socialist 19 March 2009:
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