As part of the drive to cut public expenditure and the budget deficit, the government propose reducing the legal aid budget by some £35 million per annum. The government claim that legal aid expenditure is disproportionately high, comparing spending per capita on legal aid in this country at £39 per head to that of New Zealand at £8. Most people will appreciate, however, that this comparison is not well made as the countries simply do not compare.
You might expect those affected to predict wholesale carnage if such cuts are made. In my view, it is a case of you may not want to live with it, but unfortunately you probably can’t live without funding at its present level.
It is predicted that a third of all law centres will close if the cuts to the legal aid budget are to go ahead in the autumn. That, it is estimated, would reduce those receiving help from law centres from 120,000 per annum to just 40,000. What then happens to the 80,000 who are not advised? Cases do not simply go away but without appropriate advice they become more complex and involve more agencies.
The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux provides figures for the advantages of timely and appropriate advice. Their estimation is that £1 spent on welfare benefit advice saves £8.80 in future spending, £1 on housing advice saves £2.34 and debt advice given saves £2.98.
Beyond that, consider the impact of an increase in litigants in person on the court system. It is far more time consuming to have someone unrepresented. The tribunal, or indeed those who advise them in court, need to take care to ensure that the participants, if not afforded the benefit of legal advice, understand procedures and understand the law. Cases which could be dealt with expeditiously will clog up the system which is itself affected from the other side by Government cuts, reducing the number of courts and the people who staff them.
Also in terms of criminal law, one also needs to consider whether persons hoping to represent themselves are actually afforded the justice that they hope will be available. I appreciate it is only anecdotal evidence, but in a Magistrates Court in the North West, whilst waiting for a case to be called, a solicitor sat through the trial of an unrepresented defendant.
In this case, the prosecution presented their evidence by way of written statements. These had been served upon the defendant prior to the hearing under provisions which require the defence to actively say if those witnesses are required. One will never know whether the defendant understood that which he was being asked, but certainly the witnesses’ attendance was not requested.
When the prosecution case was finished the defendant rose to give his evidence. He did his best to explain what had gone on and why he believed he was not guilty of the charge. There was no assistance from the clerk in eliciting a version of events from him or expanding on that which might assist. He was then subjected to cross examination. That cross examination introduced matters which had never been evidenced by the prosecution in their case who in effect got such evidence in by the back door. In the absence of a criminal defence solicitor, no objection was raised and the defendant, I am sure, was not aware as to whether rules of evidence had been breached. The result was, not unsurprisingly, that he was convicted.
This was a short on not particularly complex matter, but nonetheless clearly demonstrates the need for professional legal representation before the court.
Despite the cuts, legal aid may still be available for your case and, if not, it may still be appropriate to discuss private funding for a criminal defence lawyer. Given what is potentially at stake, it could be the best investment you have ever made.