New Internationalist

Legal aid cuts will wreck lives and increase inequality

The Tory spending cuts are based on ideology, not sound economics. This is becoming more and more clear as the scope of the cuts are revealed. Recent revelations in the Tories’ plans to increase the tuition fee cap to £9,000 per year will block hundreds of thousands of potential students from attending university, particularly the élite universities which already have a disproportionate number of students from private and public schools.

The latest cuts to be announced are to the legal aid system. Justice Secretary Ken Clarke announced this week that the Tories plan to slash £350 million a year from the legal aid bill. The legal aid system is already critically underfunded; it was neglected by Labour and is now being destroyed by the Tories.

There hasn’t been an increase in spending on legal aid in more than 10 years, while costs, including inflation, have soared. This amounts to a real-term 25 per cent cut in spending over the last 10 years.

Further cuts won’t just restrict access to legal representation, they risk the collapse of the entire system.

Due to the lack of funding over the last decade, the Legal Services Commission, the body that controls legal aid in England and Wales, is so underfunded that it cannot afford to hire enough staff to process legal aid bills from solicitor firms. This has the knock-on effect that these firms cannot pay their overheads. Many are on the verge of bankruptcy, others have stopped offering a legal aid service.

The cuts to the legal aid will impact on almost every area: clinical negligence, education, employment, immigration, benefits, debt, housing and certain family law cases. These are all areas that significantly affect many people on low-incomes on a daily basis, many of them needing this support to keep their homes, jobs and families. The repercussions of these cuts will have far-reaching consequences for the rest of society also.

If legal aid is taken away from employment cases, this will allow employers to exploit their low-paid workforces with impunity, safe in the knowledge that they don’t pay their staff enough for them to be able to afford legal representation. Included under employment law is sexual harassment in the workplace. If women, already disproportionately affected by the cuts as well as workplace harassment and exploitation, cannot get legal representation the pay-gap will increase and women will suffer further exploitation and oppression in the workplace.

There are exceptions for domestic violence cases written into the changes, but this won’t be sufficient to protect people, particularly women and children. It is estimated that only 2.5 per cent to 15 per cent of domestic abuse cases are reported. If victims fear they could be left in crippling poverty due to legal fees, fewer cases will be reported and more people will live their lives in fear and oppression.

Reform is desperately needed in the legal aid system but not because we need to make cuts and not by cutting people’s access to services. Whilst the vast majority of solicitors earn very modest sums from legal aid, particularly considering the amount of work they do, there are a handful of barristers who earn disproportionately more. Many of the top Queen’s Counsels can bill the legal aid system for up to £500,000 per year, on top of their salaries for private cases. I would suggest this is where the savings can be made, not by taking the services away from the people who need them and the overworked and underpaid solicitors.

Free access to legal representation for those who need it is a cornerstone of a fair and equal society. The cuts to the legal aid system will lead to increases in exploitation, sexual harassment, discrimination, segregation, poverty, debt, homelessness, domestic violence, abuse....

Doesn’t sound much like a fair society to me.

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