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Delivering the annual Tom Sargant Memorial Lecture in London last night, Lord Neuberger attacked the reforms to the legal aid system, saying that reducing access to legal aid for some cases court make courts more inefficient, costing more money and potentially leading to situations where people had to drop legitimate claims they could not afford to pursue. If that happened it would, in Lord Neuberger’s own words, be “a rank denial of justice and a blot on the rule of law”.
The speech comes at a time when further cuts, of around £350 million, have been planned to the UK’s annual £2 billion legal aid budget. In the words of the Ministry of Justice, the cuts “will create a sustainable legal aid system that will still be one of the most generous in the world. At a time when major financial challenges are being felt by businesses and households across the country the legal sector cannot be immune from the government's commitment to getting better value for every penny of taxpayers' money we spend."
In his speech, which was organised by legal campaign group Justice, Lord Neuberger warned of the potential harm from government cuts to the legal aid budget, saying that: "Cutting the cost of legal aid deprives the very people who most need the protection of the courts of the ability to get legal advice and representation."
Lord Neuberger also warned government ministers to be very careful that their planned reforms would not restrict the rights of members of the public to use the judicial review system.
Judicial reviews can be used to challenge the decisions of local councils and other public authorities and Lord Neuberger said that whilst he understood the government wanting to discourage “weak” applications for reviews, "One must be very careful about any proposals whose aim is to cut down the right to judicial review. The courts have no more important function than that of protecting citizens from the abuses and excesses of the executive - central government, local government, or other public bodies."
As a firm dealing with a variety of Legal Aid funded work, including both criminal cases and also family law, Canter Levin & Berg have been active both locally and nationally on the issue of legal aid reform. We have joined other law firms and legal professionals to protest in the cuts to the legal aid budget and to highlight the potential effect the cuts could have in denying access to justice for people who lack the means to fund their legal cases.
Criminal Law Solicitor Ronan Molloy added his thoughts about Lord Neuberger’s speech and how the legal aid cuts will affect people who might need the help of a solicitor in relation to a criminal matter:
I would fully support the view of Lord Neuberger. The truth is spending on the Criminal Justice system has fallen for a number of years. These continuing and drastic cuts will reduce the access and quality of justice for both the accused and the victim. These are the very people who should be protected by the state.
Family Law Solicitor Rebecca Finnigan also spoke about how the cuts will affect her work dealing with vulnerable people who might need a legal aid funded solicitor to help them with their family law issue:
Whilst legal aid is still available for most types of family cases, the criteria as to who will qualify for Legal Aid are now very stringent indeed. Since the changes in Legal Aid were introduced in April 2013, we have seen a marked increase in people representing themselves within court proceedings. Many of these people would previously have qualified for Legal Aid and now cannot afford to meet their fees privately, so are left with no alternative but to navigate the legal system themselves.
Where previously the individual’s Legal Aid would have funded items ordered by the court such as drug or alcohol testing, the removal of Legal Aid for very many people has left a ‘black hole’ as there is no other body or organisation who will fund this. The result is that individuals will have to fund such tests themselves or testing might be foregone altogether and the court could rely on other evidence such as what the parties say about the issue.
As a Family solicitor it is both saddening and infuriating to see vulnerable individuals with deserving cases having to represent themselves in court when they are clearly in need of quality legal representation, for example individuals whose contact has been cut off for no reason, or individuals facing false allegations.
The Family department now offers Fixed Fees for clients to help them to budget for legal proceedings, or simply for those who wish to know where they stand legally.