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Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Are we still a civilised society?

Are we still a civilised society?


Convincing the public of the importance of legal aid is the first step in placing access to justice back on the political agenda, writes Jon Robins

The first article that ever appeared on the Justice Gap website, an online magazine run by journalists about the law and justice aimed at the public, when we launched in 2011 was headlined: '"Access to justice": What the @%!? does that mean?'

It was a blunt riposte to Ken Clarke. The then justice secretary had just revealed to the world
a consultation paper on the government's plans for legal
aid which were to become the dreaded Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders
Act (LASPO).

'I genuinely believe "access
to justice" is the hallmark of a civilised society,' Clarke told MPs.

That was a bit rich, we thought, coming from a politician whose proposals amounted to little more than a demolition job. LASPO was predicated on a simple idea: cutting £350m
from a £2.2bn budget, mainly
by removing most of the social welfare law scheme (except where protected by the Human Rights Act) and family legal
aid (except in domestic
violence cases).

Earlier this month, the Justice Gap, together with the Justice Alliance, successfully completed
a crowdfunding campaign to put together a one off issue of Proof magazine aimed at the public
on 'why legal aid matters and
why we need to fight NOW for properly public-funded access
to justice'.

The harsh truth is that LASPO tore the heart out of the legal
aid scheme and barely anyone (apart from lawyers) noticed. Having witnessed the civil legal aid scheme butchered with seemingly little attempt to win over the hearts and minds of the British public, the Justice Alliance sprang into life. It was conceived by a younger generation of lawyers who have their careers before them and who recognise the urgent need to reframe the access to justice debate. It is
a broad coalition of lawyers, professionals working in the advice sector, community groups, trade unionists, and campaigners.

We want to kick-start a public debate about a crucial public service - but one that has been fairly described as 'the forgotten pillar of the welfare state'.

Back in 2011 we invited lawyers, academics, and campaigners to consider what,
if anything, did 'access to justice' mean. Had the phrase become
so devalued that it should be junked? 'Fundamental rights
and freedoms and the rule of law are vital checks and balances
in any civilised society - but meaningless without "access to justice" or the practical means of understanding and enforcing the law of the land,' Shami Chakrabarti, then director of Liberty, told us.

Legal aid has an image problem. While 'we all love
schools and hospitals', Chakrabarti reasoned, publicly-funded law 'doesn't seem important until you're really in trouble'.

Sadly, plenty of people are
in trouble and need legal help. Just to give one example, in the year before LASPO, 82,542 people were helped to get their rightful benefits entitlements. According to the latest quarterly statistical bulletin from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) published on
30 June, only 258 were helped last year. State-funded advice through the 'help scheme' is one-third of the pre-LASPO levels, and representation before a court
or tribunal around two-thirds
of what it was.

Nonetheless the MoJ sticks
to its dubious assertion that our legal aid system is 'still one of the most generous in the world'. It is almost five years since Full Fact, the independent fact-checking organisation, challenged the validity of such a claim. 'Last year we spent £1.6bn on legal
aid, almost a quarter of our departmental budget,' the MoJ said in early 2016. 'We have made sure legal aid continues to be available in the highest priority cases, for example where people's life or liberty is at stake, where they face the loss of their home,
in domestic violence cases or where their children may be taken into care.'

The Legal Aid Agency's latest stats suggest they are failing to do even that. Pre-LASPO, we were assured that the worst excesses
of the cuts would be tempered by a generous exceptional funding regime. Last year there were 641 such cases assisted - not quite the 5,000 to 7,000 cases anticipated.

In the meantime, the threadbare safety net of advice agencies continues to unravel. Eleven law centres have been forced to close since 2013.
On average, law centres have
lost 40 per cent of their income, including a massive 60 per cent cut to their legal aid revenue.

Proof will be out later in the year. Again, we will be looking
at what 'access to justice' means - and whether it means anything without a properly-funded system of social welfare law advice.

To find out more about Proof magazine visit here.

Jon Robins is a freelance journalist and editor of the Justice Gap @JusticeGap