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30 JUL 2014

Changing the story on legal aid

Changing the story on legal aid
Steve Hynes, Director of Legal Action Group 

Today (30th July) marks the 65th anniversary of the founding of the modern legal aid system. It was on 30 July 1949 that the Legal Aid and Advice Bill received royal assent. To coincide with the anniversary, LAG is publishing the results of opinion polling research which shows a lack of public support for the government’s cuts to legal aid.

The fieldwork for the polls was carried out by the independent research company Ipsos-Mori. The first poll was conducted in April last year, the month in which the LASPO Act cuts were brought in, with a follow-up poll conducted in April this year. Both polls used a sample group of just over 1,000 members of the public and were undertaken as part of the regular public opinion polling exercise which Ipsos- MORI runs.

The two polls asked the public if they agreed or not that legal aid should be cut to reduce the government spending deficit:

Last year, a third (34%) of adults aged 18+ in Great Britain agreed that legal aid should be cut as part of the deficit reduction programme, but there has been a shift in opinion with only 23% agreeing this year.

In 2013, 44% of people disagreed with the statement that legal aid should be cut to reduce the government spend deficit, compared to 49% this year.

A quarter of adults neither agreed nor disagreed that legal aid should be cut to reduce the deficit in 2014, compared to just under one in five (18%) in 2013, an increase of 7 percentage points.
LAG also undertook an analysis of news stories about legal aid and found evidence that the government has pursued a policy of systematic attacks to try and sway public opinion against the legal aid system and the lawyers who work in it-

The research quotes an article in which Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling criticises the firm Public Interest Lawyers for its pursuit of claims by Iraqis against British forces. The owner of the firm Phil Shiner links such articles to death threats he has received.

In another article Chris Graying, uses figures on earnings from the legal aid system to demonstrate that the legal aid system “is not sustainable,” but fails to explain that the firm he quotes as earning nearly £15m per year, Duncan Lewis, is the largest civil legal aid firm in the country and employs hundreds of staff and undertakes around 20,000 cases a year.
Despite attempts by the government to smear the legal aid system and the lawyers who work in it to justify cutting it, only a small proportion of the public agreed that this should happen. The level of support for the government’s position has been slumping even further over the last year. A significantly greater proportion of the public disagree with the decision to cut legal aid as a means to reduce the government deficit than did so 12 months ago.

In LAG’s view this research shows that the government is comprehensively losing the argument over legal aid policy. In the run-up to the general election we argue that the Law Society and other organisations concerned with access to justice will need to concentrate on highlighting the gaps in services available to the public. Citizens Advice has already picked-up this baton. They reported on research to the recent Justice Select Committee which showed that nine in ten of their bureaux had no-where to refer clients to who needed specialist legal advice.

Focusing on the gaps in services for the public and linking this to a call for the government to either restore legal aid or, to put in place alternatives, such as those suggested by the Low Commission, we believe will increasingly become the dominant story about legal aid. The evidence from these opinion polls shows that we will have the public on our side.

This article was originally published on the Legal Action Group website and has been reproduced here with permission of the copyright owner.
The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.
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