Cuts to legal aid and courts make a mockery of equal access to justice | Letters

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As the chair of the commission referred to in your editorial on the appalling effects of legal aid cuts (Cuts have tipped the scales of justice. Ministers must rebalance them, 13 August), I welcome your succinct summary of the problems facing those with legal problems who are no longer able to obtain legal advice or representation when it is needed.

Early legal advice is incredibly important. It means that people can deal with a problem before it becomes a crisis. Early advice may well save court time if people with unmeritorious cases are told that. One of the functions of family legal aid lawyers before the cuts was to refer people to mediation. Mediation appointments plummeted once legal aid lawyers were taken out of the process.

The editorial refers to the cuts in the Ministry of Justice budget and the number of litigants in person. The human scale of the cuts made under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo) is also significant.

In the year before the cuts (2012-13) the number of people advised under the early legal advice scheme was 573,737. That covered all areas of civil law including family, welfare benefits, immigration and asylum and housing. In 2017-18 the figure is 140,091.

What is happening to everyone who is unable to access advice? When the cuts to legal aid were proposed, the government suggested that advice agencies would be able to fill the gap. The reality is that along with high street legal aid firms, law centres, citizens advice bureaux and other advice agencies have also been devastated by these cuts. Many have suffered huge reductions in local authority grant funding and philanthropic organisations are unable to support all those who apply for funding. The reality is that people with legal problems who used to be able to access advice are forced to struggle on alone without help or simply give up.

There used to be a consensus around legal aid and the part it played in helping to ensure that every citizen had access to justice. Access to justice is indeed a fundamental democratic right. It is constitutionally vital.

It is essential that the review of Laspo being carried out by the Ministry of Justice, which will be submitted to the lord chancellor in December, is considered urgently – and proposals must be brought in to ameliorate the democratic deficit that has arisen, not just in relation to early advice but also the other areas where changes to the justice system are so urgently required.
Willy Bach
Labour, House of Lords

We really do have a “battered” justice system. Not only has legal aid been denied to many who need to have the right to equality of arms and a fair trial, the closing of local courts has provided additional barriers, not just for defendants but also for victims and witnesses. Travelling long distances on public transport (also being cut) to unfamiliar buildings and systems is daunting, even if you are lucky enough to have representation.

Imagine trying to put your case to a court, in very emotional circumstances, when you don’t know the rules or the language. I was told once that a defendant had been informed that their case would be adjourned “sine die” – they thought that meant to a “sunny day”! This may or may not be true, but it clearly demonstrates the problem.

Please can we listen to those propping up the system and have a meaningful review of access to justice and restore confidence in the system?
Christine Walters
(Retired magistrate), Buxton

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