2018 has, quite rightly, seen the country celebrate the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the NHS. The NHS is one of the foundations of our welfare state, but what many may not realise is that another of the “great pillars of the post war welfare state” was established within a year of the NHS – Legal Aid.
The 1949 Legal Aid and Advice Act was designed to provide free legal help for those unable to afford the services of the legal profession , in the same way that the welfare state provided access to free healthcare and free education.
The word Justice is dervived from the Roman Goddess Iustitia or Justitia. The daughter of Jupiter and Themis, Justitia evoked the spirit of moral order and of fair judgement. She was depicted carrying a sword, holding scales, and wearing a blindfold.
We know her now as Lady Justice, and she is seen today proudly standing on top of The Old Bailey.
The blindfold she wears represents one of the central tenets of our legal system: the concept of blind justice. In other words, justice should be meted out impartially, irrespective of status, power or wealth.
And Legal Aid is designed to preserve this concept.
Whilst many complain about cuts to NHS funding, the Legal Aid system has seen cuts of more than £1bn in the last five years alone. It could be argued that most people will benefit from free healthcare and free education far more than they will ever benefit from free legal support, but if you believe that access to justice is a basic democratic right, then alarm bells should be ringing.
The cuts to Legal Aid have resulted in a system that is unfair, chaotic, and crumbling.
Those who cannot afford a solicitor or barrister, now find themselves in the position of having to represent themselves in court.
Think about that for a moment. Let’s imagine you are an average wage earner, your partner leaves you and takes your children with them and refuses to give you any access. You simply cannot afford to pay for a solicitor to help, so you decide to go to court and represent yourself.
However, you know nothing of the workings of the court process, you don’t understand all the legal terminology, your partner has a high flying solicitor who shoots you down in flames every time you open your mouth, you become over-emotional and unable to express yourself clearly when it’s your turn to speak…we could go on. But the result is, you lose your kids. And all because you had no access to justice.
These sort of scenarios are now being played out in our courts on a regular basis. People have pleaded guilty when they would have been advised not to had they had adequate representation; there have been cases of people not even understanding what the charges were against them, receiving harsher sentences because they were unaware they could mitigate, and sometimes being imprisoned for longer because they did not know that by pleading guilty they would receive a shorter sentence.
Those choosing, or being forced, to represent themselves often fall foul of legal complexities when cross-examining, and find themselves getting tied up in legal arguments they are simply unqualified to participate in.
A recent report showed that those unrepresented in legal cases stand a 15% chance of receiving a harsher sentence or worse outcome than if they had been properly represented.
One of the most salutory examples of the results of cuts to the legal aid system involved an unrepresented defendant who gave evidence in court via video link from a police station. The defendant remained silent throughout his court appearance. He was subsequently sent to prison whereupon it emerged that he was in fact deaf, and had not been able to hear any of the court proceedings.
At Anderson Chance we welcome the opportunity to undertake Legal Aid work, as we firmly believe in a justice system where both sides are properly represented. We have worked on cases where were it not for Legal Aid, defendants would have been found guilty of crimes they did not commit.
But don’t imagine for one moment that this is a “get rich quick” scheme for us. Legal Aid cases can often be complex and require huge amounts of dedicated research, gathering information and following leads to uncover new evidence. It may surprise you to learn we do not take on these cases for the money – in fact the current rate of pay for us in these cases is less than £20 an hour. We would earn more if we were an insurance underwriter or train driver.
We remain firmly committed to the concept of justice for all, a system whereby access is freely available for the vulnerable and the needy, where money does not buy you a better result. And that is why we strongly condemn the cuts to our Legal Aid system. We don’t want a system where justice is seen as an unaffordable luxury, a system summed up over one hundred years ago by the judge Sir James Matthews :
“In England, justice is open to all, like the Ritz Hotel”.