Cuts to legal aid have undermined the vital role solicitors play in helping people to assert their legal rights, the Law Society of England and Wales told an influential panel tasked with developing new proposals for reforming legal aid.
Submitting written evidence to the Labour Party's Bach commission, the Law Society also warned that civil legal aid cuts will result in an increase in costs to the tax payer, because failure to get early expert legal advice can result in people's problems escalating dramatically when they could have been nipped in the bud.
Law Society president Jonathan Smithers said:
'Successive governments have repeatedly cut back the legal aid budget and this review provides a crucial opportunity to consider the fundamental question of how to restore and protect access to justice for everyone in the 21st century, regardless of their economic circumstances.
There is an imbalance of power and knowledge when legal advice is solely available to wealthy individuals, corporations and state bodies, and not to ordinary people.
There are significant cost savings for society if people can obtain expert legal advice and representation. Early legal advice can forestall an escalating sequence of problems that in extreme cases can result in issues like homelessness. Prompt intervention can also help people to find a solution that doesn't involve the courts. The use of mediation to resolve a dispute before it gets to court is a good example. By advising clients of the merits of their claims, solicitors can help people decide the strength of their case and whether to pursue it. Solicitors guide individuals towards mediation where appropriate: an important role the government has failed to recognise.
The government has a fundamental responsibility to ensure access to justice is available when there is no other realistic option for people. In many cases, the government has failed to fund services that are desperately needed. For example, Parliament wanted domestic abuse victims to have legal aid for family law matters. Domestic violence is supposed to be within the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). But, in seeking to limit the numbers of claims for legal help, a bureaucracy has been created out of all proportion to the actual savings.
The current legal aid system needs reform. The capital means test for benefit claimants and evidential burdens for domestic violence determine who qualifies for legal aid help. These are preventing victims of domestic abuse from accessing legal aid in family cases. When no other realistic option exists for someone to asset their legal rights, funding from the government must be available.
Technology can improve access to justice, but proposals for digital courts will not remove the need for solicitors, who play a vital role in overcoming the barriers that people face in obtaining justice.'
The Bach Commission, hosted by the Fabian Society, is chaired by the Shadow Justice Minister, Lord Bach. The panel is amassing submissions from legal experts and is compiling evidence-based proposals on how to restore access to legal information, advice and representation.
The panel's findings will be considered by Labour's policy review.