Legal aid is (almost) dead - What can lawyers do to help people access justice now?
Wednesday, May 02, 2012
- Organization: Guardian
After a long fight and a knife-edge vote in the Lords last week, the Queen gave her assent today to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (Laspo). A significant number of people will no longer have access to professional help with legal problems.
While the government frequently points to the not-for-profit (NfP) advice sector - notably Citizens Advice Bureaux and law centres - as the safety net for these people, these organisations are suffering their own crises. Any notion that they can fully serve the interests of those legally disenfranchised by Laspo is wishful thinking at best.
The launch of alternative business structures has been mooted as a way of filling the gap, too, with proponents saying it will enable legal services to be delivered in innovative ways. But relying on the combined impact of Laspo and ABS is an explosive and haphazard approach to reforming the legal landscape. The deregulation of legal services, like the privatisation of public services, will not automatically improve them. In fact, the contrary may be true.
Some not for profit organisations have set up social enterprises and started to introduce small charges for services as a way of surviving and bolstering free advice provision. But they face outright competition from legal providers who already charge fees and the widespread perception that you consult a solicitor if you can afford one, and a law centre or CAB if you can't.
Some people may try to litigate in person, with all the difficulties that entails. Many more simply won't bother to go to court and will have to suffer the consequences of poor housing, debt, unfair welfare benefits decisions and employers' misconduct without recourse to the courts. So what can lawyers do to help people negotiate this harsh landscape?
1) Not-for-profit organisations should be clear about their main aim: to provide services to those denied access to justice by the lack of legal aid. They should make it clear that any ABS they have created is independent of their free provision, and they are not speculatively exploring new markets at the expense of their neediest clients
2) The 'for profit' legal profession should recognise that while lawyers have no equivalent of doctors' Hippocratic Oath, the law is more than simply a tool or trade: it is a glue that binds society. A proactive commitment, in one form or another, to make sure everyone is able to take their place within society is an essential part of being a lawyer
3) Clients' needs are not just a potential source of revenue. They arise from the human condition
4) Resolving legal problems at an early stage is vital, and properly funded legal advice can enable this to happen
5) Nonetheless, it is not the job of the legal profession to resolve all the iniquities involved in access to justice. You do not blame plumbers for winter. Society as a whole is responsible for improving the lot of its citizens through both access to justice and education about rights and responsibilities.