Reductions in legal aid and rising court fees have prompted a senior judge to call for reform, saying it’s a matter of principle.
The government of Theresa May, like that of David Cameron before her, has been in the habit of increasing court fees while reducing legal funding. But now a senior judge, Justice Rupert Jackson, has expressed concern that the UK is moving closer to a system where the courts service will become self-funding. He’s written about this worry in his new legal text, The Reform of Civil Litigation.
Legal aid is a means-tested subsidy which can help those with less money to afford professional legal advice and representation in the courts. It is provided by the public purse, which means it’s taxpayers who fund the legal aid pool, just as they do the National Health Service.
The shrinking of that pool over time has made it difficult for lawyers to represent those citizens who rely on the funding. Cuts have meant changes to the rules concerning legal aid; essentially which kinds of cases the funding can and can’t be used for.
In 2013, for instance, changes meant that funding could no longer be used for divorce, child contact, welfare benefits, employment, clinical negligence, and housing law. One effect of this was that victims of domestic abuse required proof before entitlement to legal aid in family cases. This proved uncomfortable for those having to turn away rape victims seeking free legal advice.
Another area where the impact has been felt is in immigration and asylum. Seven cuts to funding for asylum cases have been made in three years. Not only that, court fees for asylum hearings are set to increase by 500%. One such increase means a fee of £140 for an oral hearing will rise to £800. This decision was made on Thursday 15 September 2016 by the Ministry of Justice, despite widespread opposition.
The ministry has said:
The cost to the taxpayer of our courts and tribunal system is unsustainably high, so it is right that those who use the system should pay more to relieve this burden.
The exception applies to those already deemed destitute, but others will still face a bigger hurdle. Two major providers of asylum advice have gone bankrupt, for instance.
The practical effect is that those who are not quite destitute, but who don’t have any disposable income, are trapped. They cannot afford legal advice, do not have access to the best representation, and cannot even afford court fees to represent themselves.
Jackson admits he should not be campaigning on matters of policy, but believes it to be a strong point of principle. And he’s right. By moving the entire burden of cost from taxpayers to litigants, justice becomes available only to those who can afford to buy it.
– Support charities like Asylum Aid who provide free asylum advice.
– Write to your MP about your concerns on reduced legal aid and increased court fees.
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Featured image via Flikr/Justin Baeder
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