Poor fear high price of cuts in legal aid: Adam Sage looks at the impact of proposals that the Law Society believes could deprive 7 million people of free legal advice and raise costs for many more

Click to follow
YEAR after year, Sue Coates would spend Christmas waiting for her husband, knowing that he would return from the pub drunk, abusive and violent.

She would take this treatment, determined to keep her family together. It was only when her eldest son convinced her that the violence could not continue that she sought a divorce.

About 18 months ago, Mrs Coates approached a solicitor in Sunderland. The immediate result was terrifying, she said. Her husband, who had moved out, began telephoning to insult her and threatened to get her 'bumped off'. He came round to the house, hammering on the windows.

Margaret Crisell, her solicitor, advised her to get an injunction. At first it had no effect, but when Mrs Coates went back to court asking for her husband to be jailed if he continued to breach the order, he gave an undertaking to leave her alone. Gradually, the the harassment stopped.

That injunction was crucial. It was obtained through legal aid and cost her nothing.

However, under changes proposed by Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, Mrs Coates would have had to pay at least pounds 160 for the court order, according to the Law Society, the professional body for solicitors. At the time she was earning pounds 65 a week - money which had to support her children aged 10 and eight.

'I just wouldn't have paid it. How could I? It would have been a choice between the grocery money, missing part of the rent, or paying for the injunction.'

She is not alone in responding to the proposals in that way. Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, said the cuts could lead to 'unrest'. The Law Society said that 7 million people will be denied free legal advice; millions more will have to pay a larger proportion of their costs.

The Lord Chancellor's Department said its annual legal aid budget - now just under pounds 1bn - was rising by about one-third each year. Something had to be done.

This is not an argument for which Brian Pallace has much time. He was working as a joiner at a hotel in Hull when a fire door fell on to him, badly cutting his elbow. He sued with legal aid, but was asked to contribute pounds 12 a week for the first year of his case.

Under the new proposals he would be asked to make payments for every year his case lasted - at least two years. Instead of paying about pounds 600, he would be charged well over pounds 2,000. This for a claim that is unlikely to be worth more than a few thousand pounds. 'It would have been a total no go.'

George Colling, a carpet salesman from Sunderland, was injured in a car crash which left him with a broken right leg. The Legal Aid Board asked him to contribute pounds 132.50 towards the costs of suing the other driver, a claim that won him pounds 4,500 damages.

He would now be asked to find about pounds 2,000 towards his costs. 'I just wouldn't have brought the case,' he said.

Nor are defendants in criminal cases escaping the cuts. At Sunderland magistrates' court, most defendants are unemployed and therefore still eligible for legal aid. However, the authorities are finding other reasons to deny them help, according to solicitors.

The Legal Aid regulations state that in order to be granted assistance, a defendant must face the prospect of jail. But the Criminal Justice Act, which came into force in October, urges magistrates to use community sentences, reducing the number of people eligible for legal aid, according to some justices' clerks.

Such was the fate which befell a 17-year-old pools collector whose legal aid application was refused. He had been accused of pocketing payments worth pounds 16 made by a man who claimed winnings of pounds 692. The collector said he had 'forgotten' to forward the money. Charges were pressed.

Nigel Barnes, of solicitors Ben Hoare Bell, appealed against the refusal of legal aid, which was then granted. 'I carefully canvassed the possibility of a caution if he paid back the pounds 692,' Mr Barnes said. 'The family came up with the money, he was cautioned by the police and the case was dropped. He would never have got that result without legal representation.'

For much of this year, the debate about legal aid has been dominated by solicitors complaining about government plans to reform the way they are paid. Lord Mackay is to scrap hourly rates for criminal work in magistrates' courts, replacing it with fixed fees that are not dependent upon the length or complexity of the case.

Behind the proposals is a suspicion that solicitors have been inflating legal aid claims.

The Law Society believes the problem of inflated claims to be small and said the harm done by Lord Mackay's system would far outweigh any benefits. Fixed fees would put pressure on its members to cut corners.

But Ben Hoare, a partner at Ben Hoare Bell, said these strains already existed. He is worried that legal aid is becoming a 'second- rate service'.

The three partners at the practice earn pounds 31,000 a year, the three assistant solicitors pounds 21,000. Mr Hoare said he could live comfortably but pointed out that he had more than 20 years experience and compared himself to GPs, whose incomes are at least pounds 10,000 higher. The solicitors said in commercial practice they could have been earning twice as much.

Mr Barnes used the case of Paul, 21, to illustrate the need for legal aid. He appeared unrepresented before Sunderland magistrates last week, charged with trying to sell cocaine. His case was adjourned, but as he turned to leave, the clerk boomed: 'Stay there.' Paul, he said, had been fined pounds 50 at Middlesborough magistrates' court and had agreed to pay off pounds 8 a week. He had not done so.

The defendant started to explain that he had lost his job since the fine was imposed. The clerk who asked: 'What are you going to do about it?' Paul said he could pay off pounds 25.

In front of a full court room Paul pulled out four used pounds 5 notes. 'Where's the other five pounds?' the clerk said. Paul made his way towards a friend who gave him five pounds 1 coins. 'You can go now,' the clerk said.

A middle-aged woman in court for another case was disgusted. 'If he's on income support, that pounds 25 will be his money for the week. What's he going to do now? Nick money in order to eat?'

(Photograph omitted)