The Legal Aid Agency and the Ministry of Justice have been silent on this week’s milestone.
This week marks the 65th anniversary of the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949 that brought into existence the modern legal aid system.
For the uninitiated, here’s what it is all about: ‘The fourth pillar of the welfare state, legal aid is a vital resource that is often overlooked by the public, especially when compared to its bigger cousins the NHS, education and social security.
‘The birth of legal aid was a turning point. Until [its introduction], access to justice for people of limited means depended on the charity and social conscience of lawyers. [Since then], legal aid became a right for the most disadvantaged members of our society.
‘In the current economic climate, legal aid is more vital than ever.’
This description comes from Carolyn Regan, then chief executive of the Legal Services Commission, the forerunner of the Legal Aid Agency (LAA), writing in the Guardian on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the act in 2009.
Back then, the 60th anniversary was greeted with some fanfare, complete with a display of its history at parliament and tiny silver badges bearing the old legal aid picnic-table emblem, sported on ministerial lapels. (Though that is not to say the government or the commission were not as keen as to wield the axe as they are now.)
In contrast, this week, the LAA and the Ministry of Justice have been silent on the milestone reached by the ‘vital’ grande dame of a service.
A poll, funded by the Law Society and carried out by Ipsos-Mori for charity Legal Action Group to mark the anniversary, shows the extent of public support, despite the government’s efforts to malign it to the public as a resource exploited by immigrants and ne’er-do-wells that needs to scaled back.
Under a quarter (23%) of the 1,000 people surveyed in April agreed with the government’s cuts, down from just over a third (33%) in the same poll carried out last April. Far from criticising legal aid, the government should trumpet it – it saves both it and the taxpayer vast sums of money.
Legal aid not only pays for itself, but it makes a significant contribution to households, local economies and reducing public expenditure, according a report published by the Low Commission – an independent organisation set up to establish a strategy for the future provision of social welfare law.
The paper by professor Garham Cookson and Dr Freda Mold of the University of Surrey cited studies demonstrating the economic value of legal aid:
- A 2010 Citizens Advice study shows that for every £1 spent on legal aid, the state saved £2.34 from legal aid spent on housing advice; £2.98 from legal aid spent on debt advice; £8.80 from legal aid spent on benefits advice; and £7.13 from legal aid spent on employment advice.
- A 2014 report from Citizens Advice in Bath and north-east Somerset shows that for every £1 spent on its services there was a benefit to individuals and other stakeholders, including to the state, of between £33 and £50 over a period of five years.
- In 2010 thinktank the New Economics Foundation and advice network AdviceUK estimated the social return on debt and housing advice was £9 for every £1 invested.
Early legal advice, the report rightly suggests, prevents problems and associated costs escalating.
Surely, the benefit of legal aid is a no brainer – and the public is catching on. As the Law Society’s president Andrew Caplen extolled in his video to the profession this week ‘legal aid it too important to be put into retirement’.
We can only hope that on the act’s 70th anniversary, lawyers and their clients will come to praise legal aid rather than bury it. Perhaps the LAA will, too.
Catherine Baksi is a Gazette reporter