'Last night I cried’ was the last tweet I read before starting to write. It was from a lawyer, with children, who had felt that in revealing herself she would help others. She was working late into the evening ‘starving and tired’ and feeling depleted. But she survived. She found a way to manage. There has been much of this on social media in the last few days, it’s an important issue. It’s the life of legal aid lawyers - yet we carry on.
We carry on because we believe, really believe, in access to justice. And as legal aid has diminished – beyond all recognition – we continue to do the same job, filling the gaps where funding used to be. It’s increasingly unsustainable, emotionally and financially. And it’s time for change.
On 1 November, in the first ever ‘Justice Week’, we have the chance to raise our voice, to sound the alarm bells, in the debate on legal aid. Because it’s an understatement to say austerity justice has gone way too far. We are losing legal aid lawyers, we are growing advice deserts across the country, but more importantly, our clients have lost the right to equality of arms.
Legal aid suffered a near fatal wounding in 2013 with the introduction of LASPO. It is lawyers and advice workers, law centres, charities and pro bono support that have stepped in to keep access to justice alive, but it can’t continue. The justice system cannot survive the extensive cuts. Legal aid lawyers can’t sustain the reduction in pay. And as there has been no analysis of the ongoing social effects of diminishing access to justice, we don’t know how much of the ‘savings’ have been shunted on to other departments and other agencies.
We do know that litigants in person are taking more of the courts’ time, we know that people increasingly find themselves in crisis because they can’t access a lawyer to help with welfare benefits, debt, family and employment problems. It is self-evident that this comes at a cost, not only financially to the state, but to the health and wellbeing of families, and increasingly children. Foodbank use has increased dramatically: a 241% increase since Universal Credit was introduced. And it’s no coincidence that at the same time welfare benefits and debt were taken out of scope for legal aid.
A large proportion of possession cases have a welfare benefits and/or debt problem at their heart. If you can’t resolve the benefit issue then you can’t sort out the housing one. The cuts to legal aid aren’t savings. Ending up in court, when it could have been avoided, is costly. It’s expensive to resolve legal problems in this way. It’s not intelligent to do so.
It’s also very stressful for clients and their families. It impacts on health and well being. The case of ‘Grace’, used in the More United campaign is a perfect example. A survivor of domestic abuse she was getting her life back together. When she started to work her benefit claim changed, paperwork was lost, and her rent wasn’t paid. She couldn’t find anyone to help with her benefits. Her landlord took possession proceedings for rent arrears. The first time she saw a lawyer was at court – when she was about to be evicted. She was terrified.
It shouldn’t have to be like this though. We need early advice to prevent people getting into crisis and we need to restore legal aid for benefit cases – as a start.
Justice Alliance is working with More United to raise awareness of the legal aid crisis and to try and restore legal aid to be the life line it once was. It’s a cross-party campaign. The debate was secured by Andy Slaughter MP and Alastair Carmichael MP and supported by 21 MPs, across four parties.
We are preparing a briefing and would love to hear from anyone with any case studies that can be used anonymously or otherwise, in the media and by MPs. This is about the whole of legal aid so we are seeking evidence from criminal, civil lawyers and anyone working or affected by austerity justice. We need to work together to make change.
Please write to your MP to ask them to participate. It takes only a few minutes. It shows how strongly people feel about legal aid. Let’s keep the pressure up during the LASPO review. Let’s tell the stories of austerity justice.
Please email me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sue James is a housing solicitor at Hammersmith and Fulham Law Centre.