We all need legal aid

Joanna Biggs

At one point on Monday night, during a meeting at the LSE about the government’s new proposals for legal aid, the lights went out. It went dark as Steve Hynes of the Legal Action Group was speaking about the justice minister, Chris Grayling, and Hynes’s quip – ‘Oh God, does Grayling control the lights as well?’ – brought one of the only genuine laughs of the night (the others were bitter). Grayling was invited to the meeting but didn’t make it, as far as I could tell. It didn’t matter. He was on everyone’s minds anyway.

When I wrote about legal aid being cut for civil cases 18 months ago, the lawyers I spoke to were despondent. The mood on Monday began as composed-angry, moved to bewildered-angry, and ended up as angry-angry. Things have got a great deal worse since 2011. Criminal legal aid was left untouched in the first round of cuts, to stop unfair trials; Grayling has changed that. In order to save £220 million a year (0.002 per cent of the deficit), no one who’s arrested will be able to choose their own lawyer (and you might get stuck with an Eddie Stobart lawyer or a Sainsbury’s lawyer or an AA lawyer); if you haven’t lived in the UK for a year you won’t be allowed legal aid (this includes people who have lived here for years but have a foreign passport, children trafficked to the UK and people detained by British troops overseas); judicial reviews will be made all but impossible (‘what a boon that is’ to the government, Conor Gearty said on Monday); and prisoners won’t be able to get legal aid (to get access to mother and baby units or, and this is where we enter into Grayling’s thoughts, the vote). Francis FitzGibbon will be writing about the restrictions in a future issue of the LRB.

Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform told me last week that they will no longer be able to act on behalf of children coming out of the penal system, who are often dumped in Travelodges by their local authorities. The Howard League fights to ensure local authorities carry out their obligations to house, educate and look after released young offenders. The reforms are not only cruel and unworkable, they are needlessly expensive. Some money now on helping to keep someone from reoffending, or a lifetime in prison at £37,000 a year.

One of the strangest aspects of Monday night’s meeting was watching lawyers talking to each other, feeling guilty about the circularity of the conversation and apologising. Lawyers feel under attack: they are told they are greedy and encourage litigation. If they speak up for their vulnerable clients, that’s only because the changes to legal aid mean they’ll lose their livelihood, too. But, as Polly Glynn of Deighton Pierce Glynn said, legal aid lawyers earn less than primary school teachers.

A lot of different people spoke from the floor: a police station rep, someone from the Mary Ward Legal Centre, a mother who’d used legal aid for her disabled son while he was held incommunicado in prison, a trainee barrister. A Bar Council poll published yesterday shows that two-thirds of the public think legal aid is a price worth paying to live in a fair society. And that’s before they’ve been forced to imagine getting caught up with the law. The blogger A Barrister’s Wife wrote about a grandfather who was taken to court for having pictures of his grandchildren playing naked in the paddling pool when he took his computer to be fixed. Anyone can need a lawyer. Nick Armstrong of Matrix quoted Thomas Wolfe: ‘A liberal is a conservative who’s been arrested.’

The civil legal aid cuts were defeated 14 times in the House of Lords before being passed. If you missed the protest outside Downing Street this morning, you can respond to the government consultation, or sign this petition.


  • 22 May 2013 at 1:28pm
    Rikkeh says:
    The circularity of lawyers talking about the issue is a huge image probem.

    At the moment the campaign comes across as being spearheaded by legal aid lawyers. Given that I'm a lawyer myself, I imagine that everyone who isn't must notice that even more.

    As is pointed out above far more eloquently that I ever could do myself, the need for legal aid for access to justice is very real, as is the need for it to be of an appropriate quality.

    Right now though, this is drowned out by the "greedy lawyer" counterargument. As part of this, inevitably, the two or three millionaire legal aid lawyers at the very top of their fields (who'd earn multiples of what they do if they worked in another area I'm sure) are pointed at as being typical of the thousands of other.

    Answering this charge by saying that most legal aid lawyers earn less than primary school teachers won't exactly endear you to the primary school teachers you've impliedly devalued, nor anyone who earns even less than they do. I've heard this argument reiterated in many forms by legal aid lawyers, it's not just here. Given that such people are the main beneficiaries of legal aid (as they would not be able to afford the right representation at all without it, even with major sacrifices), this is a serious misstep.

    This might be the reason why these cuts are being ignored in much of the mainstream press. Perhaps if we heard more from those who've benefitted from the current system (say, the falsely accused or those who would otherwise have lost access to their children) and less from the lawyers who receive legal aid funding, this might change. If lawyers want to help the campaign, they should be mentioning it to their legal aid clients and (at the risk of being harsh) talking a little less themselves.

    Hopefully that will help underscore the real issue: legal aid isn't for lawyers, it's for the clients who need them and (unless you're a millionaire) you've got a higher chance than you might think of becoming one of those clients some day.

    • 23 May 2013 at 12:48pm
      mototom says: @ Rikkeh
      Of course the campaign is going to be spearheaded by lawyers - we can hardly expect those who may need legal aid in some abstract future to suddenly discover a class consciousness.

    • 25 May 2013 at 7:23am
      Jake Bharier says: @ mototom
      .... and who else would advocate for the advocates?

  • 23 May 2013 at 6:55am
    streetsj says:
    "we all need legal aid"
    "you’ve got a higher chance than you might think of becoming one of those clients some day"
    I'm not sure I buy either of those arguments. I don't disagree that the right to proper legal representation is very important but I suspect that a typical law abiding citizen is very very unlikley to need criminal legal aid. I'm not saying it doesn't happen but I suspect it is very rare and hence I think that appeals to the general public on this basis are likely to fail.

    • 23 May 2013 at 8:50am
      Phil Edwards says: @ streetsj
      Have a read of "Exhibits A-D" on this blog, streetsj - some terrifying true stories of entirely innocent people who could very easily have ended up being advised to "take a plea" and get a criminal record. It could happen to anyone, you and me included - and it will happen to many more people if these reforms go through.

      Please sign the petition.

    • 23 May 2013 at 9:05am
      streetsj says: @ Phil Edwards
      Didn't say it didn't happen (and it must be horrendous when it does) but I suspect it is very rare.

      I have signed the petition.

    • 23 May 2013 at 12:43pm
      mototom says: @ streetsj
      Forget the so called "law abiding citizen", anyone charged with a criminal offence and being taken on by the state should have reasonable access to legal assistance - those who cannot afford to buy their own, should still have access to such. Or should the guilty be excluded?

  • 24 May 2013 at 10:20am
    IanGFraser says:
    Here's another angle. It's an adversarial system. Even in criminal trials, it is founded on the notion that parties make their own cases. To do that, they must have legal representation; it's how people interact with the system, and how the system processes facts, rules & decisions.

    When parties don't have that professional interlocutor, the system clogs up, sputters, slows, and will eventually fail -- to the extent it doesn't transform into a mass-produced show of 'justice'.

    (Check out how judges in Canada are becoming alarmed at these effects after our legal-aid cuts...)

    • 24 May 2013 at 11:55am
      mototom says: @ IanGFraser
      Sir Alan Ward’s recently delivered judgment in the Court of Appeal case, Wright v Michael Wright Supplies Ltd & Anor [2013] EWCA Civ 234 provides a damning comment on the removal of much legal aid and the resulting growth in unrepresented litigants:
      “2. What I find so depressing is that the case highlights the difficulties increasingly encountered by the judiciary at all levels when dealing with litigants in person. Two problems in particular are revealed. The first is how to bring order to the chaos which litigants in person invariably – and wholly understandably – manage to create in putting forward their claims and defences. Judges should not have to micro-manage cases, coaxing and cajoling the parties to focus on the issues that need to be resolved.…….. It may be saving the Legal Services Commission which no longer offers legal aid for this kind of litigation but saving expenditure in one public department in this instance simply increases it in the courts. The expense of three judges of the Court of Appeal dealing with this kind of appeal is enormous. The consequences by way of delay of other appeals which need to be heard are unquantifiable. The appeal would certainly never have occurred if the litigants had been represented. With more and more self-represented litigants, this problem is not going to go away. We may have to accept that we live in austere times, but as I come to the end of eighteen years service in this court, I shall not refrain from expressing my conviction that justice will be ill served indeed by this emasculation of legal aid.”

  • 24 May 2013 at 7:04pm says:
    Excuse the heresy, but practitioners should ask themselves why our adversarial system is more expensive to operate than inquisitorial systems, why the conviction rate is lower and the prison population higher. If offenders are apprehended more frequently punishments need not be so severe. Cesare Beccaria taught us this in the eighteenth century. How have we managed to forget Enlightenment principles? Adversarial justice inevitably creates what Langbein calls a 'truth deficit'. So the low conviction rate has to be off-set by a higher tariff. Resources could be re-directed to civil legal aid if we modernized the criminal justice system. And the prison population would reduce.

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