Justice in a Time of Austerity
‘The disastrous impact of austerity on the English justice system is increasingly being recognised,’ wrote Dr Daniel Newman on the Justice Gap introducing a new post-LASPO project: Justice in a time of austerity. ‘It is becoming impossible to deny that justice is in crisis; an under-funded, declining institution whose problems disproportionately affect the disadvantaged and most marginalised in society.’
‘This degradation of justice is why we are about to launch our new research project, Justice in a Time of Austerity. We are looking at the civil justice system of England and Wales; how it has been damaged by cuts in legal aid brought about by the coalition government in the name of austerity, and how this impacts on the people who use it today.’
Dr Daniel Newman
Justice in a Time of Austerity (@Jausterity) is a collaboration between Jon Robins of the Justice Gap and Dr Daniel Newman of Cardiff University supported by the City law firm Ashurst and LegalVoice. Over the next 12 months Daniel and Jon will be reporting on the impact of the 2013 legal aid cuts. Articles will appear on LegalVoice.
End of legal aid’s postwar dream
The ‘postwar dream’ of ensuring that no one would be financially unable to obtain justice was in jeopardy, wrote the FT in a feature on legal aid. The article began with the story of Tony Rice – see here.
One litigant-in-person likened appearing in court to The X Factor. ‘You’ve got the judge there judging how well we’re all performing,’ she said. Others felt ‘shut out of the process’. ‘They [the judges and lawyers] would talk among themselves in legal-type language, and I was just sat there waiting for it to be translated,’ remarked another LiP.’
‘The few litigants I interviewed who felt the court hearings had gone in their favour very much felt they had scraped through and got lucky,’ commented Jess Mant, a lecturer in law at Cardiff University who interviewed 23 litigants-in-person involved in negotiating child arrangement orders. ‘It’s like playing a game where everyone else knows the rules and you don’t.’
The FT also interviewed Danielle Manson who has been a practising barrister for just over a year. Raised by a single parent on a council estate, Manson ‘encountered the law early in life: her father was in prison and, when she was 10, her mother, a teacher, was charged with a criminal offence and held in custody before being acquitted at trial’.
She claimed that she was owed £10,000 for work completed but which will not be paid until the trial completes. ‘Travel costs to get to court are paid upfront by barristers and reimbursed afterwards, and the price of a train ticket can easily be greater than the fee for a far-flung hearing,’ the FT said. That was without considering the £40,000 student debt. A barrister’s traditional garb can cost £1,000 and Manson wore a gown donated by another barrister and carried her horsehair wig around in a Tupperware box ‘because she cannot afford the traditional black-and-gold tin’ (apparently £250).
‘We are lawyers but we are also social workers, we’re counsellors, we are sometimes mental health practitioners bringing to the court’s attention an individual who has perhaps gone undiagnosed for years. You are the only person, especially when you are defending, that is standing in between them potentially going to prison and not.’
Pillar of the welfare state
The government was dismantling the UK’s ‘precious system of legal aid’ placing access to justice under threat, said a senior supreme court judge in an outspoken speech in Chicago – as reported by the Guardian.
Speaking at Northwestern University in Chicago, Lord Wilson described the Human Rights Act as ‘brilliant’ although recent ruling by Strasbourg did ‘stick in the throat’.
On legal aid, he said that even where the government was required to continue to provide free legal aid, it was ‘dismantling it indirectly by setting rates of remuneration for the lawyers at levels so uncommercial that, reluctantly, most of them feel unable to do that work. Access to justice is under threat in the UK.’
‘In pursuit of its economic policy the UK government has recently felt the need to dismantle much of our precious system of legal aid, introduced in 1949 along with the other two pillars of our welfare state, namely social security and the National Health Service.’
Slipping into poverty
Defendants on low incomes were being ‘forced to choose between legal representation or avoiding slipping into poverty’, the Law Society warned. According to a Chancery Lane report (as reported by the Gazette) the means testing of legal aid was set at a level that can require people on low incomes to make contributions that were ‘way beyond their means’.
Someone earning more than £17,000 was denied any legal aid in a magistrates’ court. ‘But after their contributions towards defence costs in the Crown court have been taken into account they end up with only about half the amount they need to cover living costs,’ the Law Society reckons. It warned that after paying the contribution in the Crown court, those on low incomes could end up ‘41% to 53% below the minimum income standard – leaving them with less than half of what they need for essential living costs’. More here.
A huge rise in couples seeking a divorce at a time of court closures and more people acting without lawyers was ‘fuelling delays in the family justice system’, the Times’ Brief reported.
Apparently, there is an 18 per cent rise in people seeking divorce. ‘The workload of the family courts is delaying the granting of divorces,’ The Times reported. ‘For decree nisi the average time from the date of petition was 28.1 weeks, while the average time from petition to decree absolute was 54.4 weeks, a record high.’
Child care cases were ‘taking on average two weeks more at 29 weeks, in breach of a target of 26 weeks’. ‘In the family courts, 38% of cases are seeing both sides appear without lawyers; a rise of 21 per cent since cuts to legal aid five years ago,’ it said.
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