Legal Aid: First Impressions
In 1950, SJ reported on the favourable first impressions of the legal aid scheme
An encouraging picture of the manner in which the legal aid machine is swinging into action was given by the Lord Chancellor at a Press conference held at The Law Society’s Hall on 17th October.
Viscount Jowitt declared that he had never had a better body of persons to work with than in connection with legal aid, and he revealed the impressive fact that about 8,500 solicitors and 1,500 barristers are now on the panels. This showed, he said, that – taking into account the numbers who engage in litigation – substantially the whole of both branches of the profession are now supporting the scheme.
First reports showed that during the first fortnight over 5,000 persons have called at local offices, but a very much larger number have applied for application forms for civil aid certificates. It has, however, been found that about half the forms completed by applicants without professional advice have been defective, mainly by reason of insufficient information to enable local committees to judge whether a prima facie case exists.
There is no doubt a difficulty here, for there is no provision whereby solicitors advising on the completion of application forms can be reimbursed out of the legal aid fund, and until legal advice becomes a part of the service applicants will be faced with the choice of consulting a solicitor in the ordinary way or of completing the forms themselves.
The Lord Chancellor made it clear, however, that a close watch would be kept on the difficulties of applicants with a view to any simplification of the forms that may be possible.
Some 2,800 completed forms of application have been referred to the Assistance Board for report, and present indications are that the Board is able to report within seven to ten days – a time which may be reduced when the machinery has settled down.
One of the most significant facts which has so far become apparent is that about 60 per cent. of the applicants would not have been eligible for assistance under the old Poor Persons procedure.
Not unexpectedly, some 80 per cent. of the applications so far received relate to matrimonial causes, but the Lord Chancellor did not anticipate that this state of affairs would last for more than a year or so, and he emphasised that any necessary steps would be taken to prevent heavy arrears of work from accumulating in this field.
The value of the provisions for the issue of emergency certificates has already been amply demonstrated, for in the first fortnight about 165 such certificates were granted and, as an illustration of the expeditious working of this procedure, it is interesting to record that on 3rd October, the second day of the scheme’s operation, a case under an emergency certificate was actually tried.
While it is too early for any definite conclusions to be drawn, there seems to be good ground for believing that the scheme has made an auspicious start.