This month marks the 65th anniversary of legislation that created legal aid, though with access to such public funding withdrawn, cut or eviscerated for so many purposes it does not seem to be time for cake and candles. Legal aid hits human retirement age in pretty bad shape.
A high proportion of lawyers from all fields of practice who have been interviewed for the Gazette’s ‘In person’ page cite witnessing the damage done to legal aid as a low point in their professional life. The challenge – to protect and promote access to justice, including through legal aid – is the top item in new Law Society president Andrew Caplen’s in-tray.
Set against this task is the consistent tendency for opposition parties to query cuts to legal aid, before seeking to carry out similar cuts in government. Witness Labour lord chancellor Derry Irvine, who found legal aid expenditure to be under control and within budget pre-1997, but thought it to be too high when in government.
Post-2010 the Conservatives have moved away from the common cause the party made with civil liberties groups when in opposition.
Maintaining access to justice is not the sole responsibility of lawyers – it is also the public’s responsibility. Only the latter can effectively break that political cycle – by moving ‘justice’ up the agenda. Lawyers cannot do it alone.