The UK legal aid crisis (London, part 1)

IMG_3962Two related issues were brought into bright, precise focus during my week-and-a-half long stay in London: the importance of timing, and of resources. Neither lies at the heart of this project on strategic casework. However, in indirect ways, they are both essential to it, and so crucial to address.

Firstly: timing. Sometimes time is against you. Then all you can do is pivot, realign your expectations, and take in what surrounds. I arrived in London on 15 March 2015. The UK Budget was released on 18 March 2015. It provided that an “additional £30bn savings [were] needed in next Parliament“, and it is expected that some portion of this will come out of the legal aid budget. This arrives on the back of continuous legal aid budget cuts and restrictions on legal aid availability since the election of the incumbent Tory-led government in 2010.[1] The cuts have been sizeable, seeing the annual legal aid budget reduced by £500m-600m – about a quarter – to what is now approximately £1.6 billion.[2]

As a result of these changes, the legal aid, community law, and public interest law sector in the UK has been significantly diminished. And so it is little surprise that I found many lawyers’ eyes set firmly on their survival rather than on strategy. And then, the UK general election is listed for 7 May 2015. Key election issues include immigration, housing, and the continued existence of the Human Rights Act. These overlap significantly with the legal aid issue, for example through discussions of what I am told anecdotally are the “unworthy” accessing legal aid for allegedly non-meritorious claims. This turns the heat up even more on the sector.

I take pause here to note an interesting distinction in legal aid between Australia and the UK: the latter does not have a salaried service, and distributes all of its legal aid by way of grants to the private sector and some community organisations. Because of the restrictions on legal aid to only particular parts of particular areas of law, lawyers are encouraged to “unbundle” people’s legal problems, and seek “fixed fee” grants of legal aid only in relation to relevant disputes. In Victoria, Australia, by contrast, Victoria Legal Aid employs legal staff that it pays directly (together with providing legal aid by grants). Legal aid is not distributed by way of “fixed fee” grants, although it is limited to particular areas of law.

This leads me to the second point: resourcing. No matter how much I tried to deliberately exclude the resource question from the scope of this project on strategy, London showed it to be unavoidable. It is well proven that demand for CLC services is always greater than supply, and all CLCs feel the limits of their resources. I had therefore presumed that we could simply move swiftly from this shared understanding to that more interesting question of how we can do more with less. To shift the focus away from identifying constraints, which the sector does relatively well, to that more fruitful question of how we can use these constraints as a vehicle to foster creativity and innovation (see this article for ideas). However, resources do inevitably shape legal practice and culture. And so where constraints are too great, or are perceived as such, they can reduce the time and morale required to identify opportunities. This risks shrinking the sector, and in turn access to justice, even further than the original cuts themselves.


[1] Many of these restrictions were introduced by way of the Legal Aid, Sentencing & Punishing of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), which came in to force in 2013. There have been further restrictions placed on legal aid since LAPSO, for example on legal aid available for judicial review applications, and restrictions on costs available for such matters. A useful summary of the cuts dated September 2014 is available here: http://www.theguardian.com/law/datablog/2014/sep/09/legal-aid-in-england-and-wales-what-is-changing. For more information see, for example: http://www.theguardian.com/law/2014/sep/25/-sp-legal-aid-forgotten-pillar-welfare-state-special-report-impact-cuts; http://www.theguardian.com/law/2015/mar/02/labour-cannot-reverse-tory-legal-aid-cuts-sadiq-khan-says.

The National Audit Office reported in November 2014 that the consequences of the civil legal aid cuts had not been well considered by government: http://www.newlawjournal.co.uk/nlj/content/national-audit-office-slates-legal-aid-cuts

[2] I would gladly be corrected on the figures if this is incorrect.

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