Legal Aid Reforms – The Loss Of Access To Justice?
On 31 March this year, sweeping cuts to Legal Aid will come into force with £350 million being cut from the civil Legal Aid budget. The impact of this is expected to be widely felt, particularly given the context of complicated and far reaching benefits reforms in recent times.
One of the areas where the civil Legal Aid cuts will be felt the deepest will be that of family law. Financial support from the government will soon disappear for cases concerning divorce and child custody, for example, and it is likely that only those cases involving domestic abuse and some child cases will remain within the scope of Legal Aid.
This means that divorcing couples will now need to fund the process of their divorces - in 2011 the average divorce cost £3,636, which is a not insubstantial amount. Whilst a simple, clear-cut divorce might not have an onerous impact on the divorcing parties, the reality is that many divorces tend more towards being complex and emotional, which means they can often drag on for some time, with the costs far eclipsing the £3,000 figure. Without Legal Aid assistance this could place a heavy burden on divorcing couples.
The announcement of the cuts to Legal Aid has once again ignited arguments over access to justice, as the budget reduction will effectively deny those without the funds to pay for their own legal representative the same access to the UK justice system as those who do have the money.
As a result of the lack of legal assistance, there is likely to be a substantial rise in litigants in person – where an individual (or company or organisation) represents themselves in court, rather than instructing a solicitor or barrister on their behalf.
This move towards self representation is being encouraged as the only viable option by those organisations that would previously have provided assistance - for example, Newcastle's Citizens Advice bureau – whose funding ends on 31st March - is now turning away many people seeking help, providing them instead with DIY legal support packs so they can conduct their own appeals.
The impact of a rise in litigants in person on the legal system is likely to be one of considerable slowing down, as cases involving litigants in person generally take up more time than cases with legal representation.
The true effect on the UK courts can only be predicted at this stage, but other jurisdictions provide a useful study.
In California, for example, where there is a limited Legal Aid system that doesn't cover family cases, litigants in person currently make up around 80% of cases being processed. There, the courts have been forced to introduce self help and legal education schemes, at a considerable cost to the public purse, in order to try and move along cases, which often become extremely time consuming without legal assistance.
However, there are some people for whom even the right to address the court themselves will be lost, as they are simply not able to represent themselves. For these vulnerable sections of society it really will be a case of a complete block to access to justice, no matter how detrimental the impact on their lives might be as a result.
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