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Legal aid is a right, not a benefit, says British public

Poll 'nails the lie that people do not care about legal aid as a political issue', comments CLSA

13 April 2015

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Nine out of ten members of the British public believe the availability of legal aid is important to ensure access to justice, according to a new survey by YouGov.

The polling of more than 2,000 adults and commissioned by the Criminal Law Solicitors' Association (CLSA) found that 84 per cent of people believe legal aid and a right to a fair trial were fundamentally a British right.

By comparison, 82 per cent of those polled felt that free healthcare at the point of use was a fundamental right. In addition, 79 per cent thought a state pension was a must.

Robin Murray, vice-chair of the CLSA, said: 'These facts nail the lie that people do not care about legal aid as a political issue. It is an important and fundamental issue for politicians to note. Legal aid campaigners speak for the people. There must be proper funding for legal aid. It is a right not a benefit.'

The CLSA will stage a 'vote for justice rally' on 23 April in Westminster in the hopes of garnering fresh interest into the legal aid cuts and turning it into an election issue.

'The problem is that the political class has not caught up with the growing public concern over attacks upon legal aid,' explained Murray. 'They do not discuss it in the election so the media does not report it as an election issue. That is why we are holding a "vote for justice rally". It is to show the media and the politicians that the attacks upon legal aid are an election issue that matters.'

He continued: 'This is where we plant our flag. This is where we raise our standard. This is where we draw a line in the sand. This is where we fight for the justice our people deserve.'

The poll's findings were released the same day as the government's new criminal courts charges are to be introduced.

Suspects who refuse to plead guilty will be forced to pay expensive court fees as an additional punishment if found guilty after trial. The punitive charges, which can reach up to £1,200, are for those convicted in magistrates and Crown Courts, with the exception of defendants under the age of 18.

Commenting on the charges, Frances Cook, chief executive of the Howard League, said: 'The new rules leave no room for judges and magistrates to use their discretion. They will be forced to hand down a fine that they know a person simply cannot pay, making a mockery of justice.'

She continued: 'The government plans to send those who cannot pay to prison. The impact assessment predicts at least £5m will be spent locking them up, driving the prison population further upwards. We already know our prisons are dangerously and chronically overcrowded. Why on earth is the Ministry of Justice trying to send more people there because they are poor? Do we really want to go back to the days of the debtors' prisons?'

Meanwhile, Richard Monkhouse, chairman of the Magistrates' Association, told the BBC: 'We see an awful lot of people who are offending because they have no money, so just slapping another fine on them, another costs element on them, isn't actually going to make a big difference if they're not able to pay.'

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor for Solicitors Journal
john.vanderluit@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @JvdLD