Changes to the Legal Aid system come into effect this week in an effort to cut the £2 billion Legal Aid bill by £350 million a year.
Legal Aid currently helps people who cannot afford the cost of legaladvice and funds solicitors and agencies to offer advice on legalproblems, including divorce and family breakdown. If necessary, Legal Aid can also be used to represent people in court.
According to the government, it is targeting resources at those who need them most in the changes to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders act which came into force on April 1. These changes reverse the previous position where Legal Aid had been available for the majority of civil cases, apart from those specifically excluded by the Access to Justice Act 1999. The changes in the new act remove some types of case from legal aid funding whilst other cases will only qualify if they meet certain criteria.
These changes are hugely significant because private family law, suchas divorce and custody battles, will be removed from Legal Aid funding. However some family law cases will continue to be funded; for example cases involving domestic violence or forced marriage.
The options for people who are ineligible for legal aid include paying
privately for legal advice, applying for support from a charity that
offers legal help or to representing themselves.
Concerns have been expressed that the changes will deny justice to the poorest in society. Lord Bach, Labour’s shadow justice minister, said the changes were: “absolutely scandalous” for “attacking…the very poorest and the most disadvantaged.”
Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, has warned that in
cases where people felt they were being denied access to the justice
system could: “take the law into their own hands.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said: “Legal aid willcontinue to be provided to those who most need it, such as where
domestic violence is involved, where life or liberty is at stake or people risk losing their home.
“But in cases like divorce, courts should more often be a last resort,
not the first. Evidence shows that mediation is often more successful,
cheaper and less acrimonious for all involved.”