Don't put paid to aid

Access to free legal advice is a vital part of a fair society. But the legal aid system is being allowed to wither and die, says Janet Paraskeva
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"Fighting social exclusion" is a phrase that ministers love to use. I don't doubt their good intentions. But there is one area where this government is in danger of failing to practice what it preaches: legal aid.

"Fighting social exclusion" is a phrase that ministers love to use. I don't doubt their good intentions. But there is one area where this government is in danger of failing to practice what it preaches: legal aid.

Legal aid is based on a simple principle: everyone, no matter what their income, should have access to legal advice. If someone is charged with committing a criminal offence, or needs guidance in a civil matter, a solicitor should be there to help. What could be more socially inclusive than that?

This principle touches a chord with the public. Fair play, justice for all, standing up for the individual versus the state: legal aid helps to turn the rhetoric of "access to justice" into a reality. So it is more than simply a part of the welfare state, as some people like to portray it. It underpins justice.

The public understands how important legal aid is. A recent ICM poll commissioned by the Law Society found that 88 per cent of people think that the Government should ensure funds are available so that everyone can get access to legal advice and representation. Justice should not be something that only the better off can afford. Yet it seems that some in the Government have lost sight of that importance. Just before coming into office in 1997, Tony Blair said that "Labour's goal of improving access to justice is an essential part of our commitment to social justice". That commitment is now being eroded.

Some think that this is lawyers crying wolf. Yes, solicitors have protested in the past about cuts to legal aid, and we still have a legal aid system. But the situation is now becoming dire.

First, consider criminal legal aid. More cases are coming before the courts, partly due to 32 new criminal offences created in the past two years alone. The cost of legal aid for asylum seekers has also risen. These two factors contributed to the legal aid budget overshooting by £272m in 2002-3.

No one is arguing that genuine asylum seekers or those charged with a crime should be denied justice. But the money to pay for this has to come from somewhere. Our fear is that Government may be tempted to raid the kitty set aside for civil legal aid. But civil legal aid is itself already under pressure.

A few facts. The civil legal aid budget was cut by £88m between 1999/2000 and 2001/1. The number of civil legal aid cases has fallen from 1.5 million in 1995/6 to just over 900,000 now. Under financial pressure, a number of solicitors are giving up legal aid. The Legal Services Commission found that between March 2000 and February 2003, the number of firms offering legal aid for employment law fell by almost a quarter, and those offering housing law fell by 15 per cent.

So, silently but stealthily, a pillar on which our legal system rests is being chipped away. In parts of the country there are now no solicitors offering certain types of legal aid at all. For example, if you live in Kent, and face a housing issue but cannot afford legal advice, then you're in for a hike. The nearest solicitor offering legal aid for housing law is now in Sussex or London. An advice desert has appeared, legal aid having withered and died.

So what does the future hold? The commission says that "at current legal aid rates, many firms are at best marginally profitable". Given that, the desertification will continue. Worse, it may accelerate if the Government decides to cut civil legal aid to pay for extra spending on criminal legal aid. Solicitors will choose to move into more lucrative aspects of legal work, leaving the most vulnerable members of society to fend for themselves. Postcode justice could become a reality.

Would the public support such a move? I don't think so. That same ICM poll I mentioned earlier found that, if Government funds are limited, 48 per cent of the public think civil and criminal legal aid should be treated equally. 34 per cent think that, if a priority has to be made, civil legal aid should be given preference to criminal aid.

So what needs to happen? The system must change. We could introduce new models of private practice delivery, or make more of not-for-profit entities registered as charities. We could look at additional ways to support those on lower incomes, perhaps through legal expenses insurance. The Law Society is currently considering all these options. But whatever changes there are, one fact cannot be ignored: any system needs a level of funding that can sustain a profession committed to working with those at the greatest disadvantage in society.

Justice, fairness, social inclusion: Labour has long championed these goals. Legal aid is a test case that will show how committed the Government is to turning rhetoric into reality.

Janet Paraskeva is the chief executive of The Law Society