Squeezing the legal aid budget has left vast numbers of people - including the most vulnerable - unable to assert their rights, the Law Society said today. In a report published today, Enforcing Human Rights, parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights reflects the Law Society’s concerns that large parts of England and Wales are becoming ’legal aid deserts’, as solicitors are forced to withdraw from services because they can no longer afford to do the work.
MPs and peers responsible for scrutinising legislation for its compatibility with human rights said the cuts cause ’grave concerns for access to justice, the rule of law, and enforcement of human rights in the UK’.
They say the ongoing government review of the legal aid reforms must look again at the financial eligibility criteria with a view to widening access to a larger proportion of the population. Among other recommendations, the committee states that lawyers should not be criticised because they represent ‘unpopular’ clients in human rights claims. ’Where there are concerns about lawyers’ conduct, the proper disciplinary channels should be used, and the government should not seek to abuse their position to influence, intimidate or interfere in that process,’ the report states.
Law Society president Christina Blacklaws said: ’Legal aid is truly a lifeline for the vulnerable. We welcome the fact the committee took our evidence on board regarding the impact that changes to legal aid in 2012 have had on the ability of individuals to access justice, and the detrimental impact of the legal aid cuts on wider society.
’They reach the conclusion that for many people in England and Wales enforcement of their human rights is now in their words “simply unaffordable”.’
The government is currently reviewing the implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which removed most funding for early legal advice on issues such as housing and family law. ’The legislation has had a major impact on access to justice and the ability of people to access the courts. So, we are pleased the committee will put forward their recommendations to feed into the government’s review,’ added Blacklaws.