The Greater Manchester Law Centre grew out of a protest against cuts to services offering free legal advice and representation. This assault on access to justice is not specific to our region, and it is intrinsically linked to the decline of Legal Aid on a national level. However, as long as we fight, there is hope.

 “As the last co-ordinator of South Manchester Law Centre put it at our first public meeting: ‘We have to do something’.” – John Nicholson, GMLC Chair

This page refers to research from the Right to Justice Report by the Bach Commission, 2017. Download here.

Why does Legal Aid exist?

Legal disputes are not abstract. They affect our homes, our families, our treatment as employees and more. They affect our very survival, for example when we fight for the rights of those claiming welfare benefits.

An effective legal system is the cornerstone of a free society. Legal Aid is not as visible as a system such as the National Health Service, but the right to justice is as important as a right to health or a right to education. First, the justice system needs to be accessible so that people can recognise when a dispute has a legal dimension. Otherwise, they can’t use the tools available to them to resolve it. Second, people must not be denied a fair footing because of a lack of resources to access advice and representation. Quite simply, no access to justice means no justice.

Bach-Commission_Right-to-Justice-Report-WEB-1-cover

LASPO

From 2010, a wide range of cuts were made to public expenditure. Legal services were hit particularly hard. These changes were enshrined in legislation with The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO).

LASPO removed more than £350m from the Legal Aid budget and ended the right to legal representation in large areas of the law on divorce, child custody, clinical negligence, welfare, employment, immigration, housing, debt, benefit and education.

In practice, this means that wronged party often has to abandon justice, swallow pride and accept being the victim of the unlawful actions of a more powerful adversary. Many people no longer even try to launch legal challenges: the number of civil legal aid matters initiated reduced by 84% between 2009-10 and 2016-17. There was a major drop in the years following LASPO, and it has remained relatively stable at the lower rate from 2017 to 2020.

Alongside a fall in the number of cases, there was around a 35% cut in the budget for civil legal aid, from £1.2 billion in 2010-11 to £786 million in 2019-20.

Where Legal Aid remains, it is very tightly means tested, making it out of reach for many.

The number of not-for-profit legal advice centres, including Law Centres, fell from around 3,226 in 2005 to 1,462 by 2015. By 2019, The Guardian reported on government figures that showed that half of all law centres and not-for-profit legal advice services in England and Wales had closed between 2013 and 2019. Greater Manchester went from having 9 Law Centres to having only 2, with large swathes of Manchester not covered by any law centre. In a survey that we conducted with service users of an established charity, we found that 90% of those that had welfare benefits issues were not in receipt of any legal help.

In 2015, the Equality and Human Rights Commission stated that the reforms have disproportionately affected women, BME and disabled communities and will continue to do so.

We have also seen an exponential increase of ‘litigants-in-person’, which means people representing themselves. A recent House of Commons library research service found was simply because of the ‘inability to afford a lawyer’.

A system not fit for purpose

The Legal Aid Agency is also subject to excessive administrative costs and bureaucratic problems. The overall budget of the Legal Aid Agency was cut by 25%, but the administration budget has remained at roughly the same level, illustrating the disproportionate complexity of the system. These costs are making it hard for professionals to justify working in Legal Aid, and even more difficult for the next generation lawyers to choose Legal Aid as their professional direction.

Cuts to Legal Aid have also been found to cost more money in the long run. One report conducted by Unite concluded that, for every £1 spent on legal advice and aid, the state saves around £6 on other forms of spending, including spending as a result of families becoming homeless and children being taken into care. The Bach Commission drew a similar conclusion, citing the situation of claimants unable to challenge benefits decisions, who require greater assistance from other parts of the public sector, such as the health service.

Hope

Stories of injustices in the legal system are gaining space in the mainstream media. Even in the bleak legal aid landscape, the Greater Manchester Law Centre opened in 2016 thanks to the dedication, defiance and support of our generous community. We have a wealth of campaigning organisations in Greater Manchester who fight for access to justice, and legal aid is increasingly visible in other related campaigns around public services. We have the support of local Councillors and MPs who are committing to fighting on our side.

The Bach Commission was founded in 2015 to conduct comprehensive research into legal aid reforms and to propose tangible proposals with cross-party appeal. The 2017 report did not fail to deliver. It proposes a Right to Justice Act, which will establish a new right for individuals to receive reasonable legal assistance without costs they cannot afford. This goes beyond a mere principle, in that it puts forward feasible ways of expanding the scope of legal aid, extending eligibility requirements, and reforming the mechanisms which are currently clunky and inefficient. Organisations such as Young Legal Aid Lawyers have responded to this report by urging individuals to promote these proposals to elected representatives.

Under pressure from campaigners, the Ministry of Justice conducted a review into the legal aid system, which resulted in this report: ‘Legal Aid: The Way Ahead‘. The report was cautious, but offered ‘awareness campaigns’ and further reviews into the scope of legal aid and whether eligibility criteria need to be widened. Throughout, the report shows a reluctance to overhaul LASPO, with a focus on small exemptions rather than more significant reforms. It is clear that a change of direction in policy is desperately needed in the fight for access to justice.

Much more work is needed, but progress is being made and our voice is being heard. As a society, we are increasingly aware of the importance of a far and accessible justice system. The shocking effects of legal aid cuts are too great to ignore and many reputable and well-researched sources are calling for change.

Links

Law Society Report – Law Under Lockdown: the impact of COVID-19 measures on access to justice and vulnerable people, 2020
https://www.lawsociety.org.uk/en/topics/research/law-under-lockdown-the-impact-of-covid-19-measures-on-access-to-justice-and-vulnerable-people

Covid has undermined our chronically under-funded justice system
https://www.theguardian.com/law/2021/jan/10/covid-has-undermined-uks-chronically-under-funded-justice-system

Ministry of Justice Report – Legal Support: the Way Ahead, 2019
Legal Support: The Way Ahead (publishing.service.gov.uk)

Right to Justice Report by the Bach Commission, 2017
http://www.fabians.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Bach-Commission_Right-to-Justice-Report-WEB.pdf

Lawyers warn that urgent investment is needed and miscarriages of justice are likely
Legal aid services are on brink of collapse, lawyers tell MPs | Legal aid | The Guardian

Legal Aid cuts: false economy
http://www.unitetheunion.org/news/legal-aid-cuts-are-a-false-economy-denying-justice-to-620000-people-new-report-warns/

Legal Aid myth busters by Young Legal Aid Lawyers
http://www.younglegalaidlawyers.org/mythbuster

Open letter to Minister for Legal Aid concerning LASPO 2012 post-implementation review
http://www.publiclawproject.org.uk/data/files/180405_letter_to_Minister_re_LASPO_review.pdf

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