The legal aid budget currently stands at about Â£2.2 billion a year. This comes out of the Ministry of Justice’s annual budget of Â£8.7 billion. The rest goes on such things as the prison and probation services.
The Justice Secretary and former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kenneth Clarke, plans to cut his department’s budget by 25%. But with the police and prisons under pressure it is understood that legal aid will be the focus for the deepest cuts.
Legal aid in England and Wales is run by the Legal Services Commission (LSC). In Northern Ireland it is run by the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission and Scotland has the Scottish Legal Aid Board. Just a browse through the sites will give you an idea of the hoops to jump through prior to getting any form of aid.
Most people will go through their lives never seeing then inside of a courtroom except by watching ‘Justice John Deed’ or ‘Judge Judy’ on the telly. They will never need to explore the channels of legal aid available to them. Many will also view legal aid sceptically when they see that MPs charged with expenses fiddling or terrorists  are able to qualify. So cutting it may be seen as an easier target.
But for those that end up in legal wrangling, especially when they are the innocent party, should have access to proper legal representation. Otherwise the rich will win over the poor whatever the merits of the case.
I have two friends who are unfortunately embroiled in completely separate legal disputes. In both cases they have been taken to court to strip them of their assets. The first step they took was to get legal advice but this requires up-front payments as well as being told these cases would cost tens of thousands. They then tried for legal aid but, although not at all well off, did not qualify. They then commenced steps to fight the cases as Litigants in Person, a very dangerous thing to do when your house is on the line! The message being that the law is too complex for the ordinary mortals that have to live by it, pay through the nose for justice or lose!
I have been made privy to the details of the cases and, as a legal layman using Google/Wiki Law, I can see they are potentially being exploited by people with deeper pockets. I cannot tell you how angry that would make you feel if that was you or your friend.
They are both now scrabbling around day to day to find the extra few hundred quid a week to fund their separate expensive battles (not easy as you can imagine!). Oh yes, when they each win (I have no doubt of that) they can get it back from the other sides. If the other sides have the assets and are still solvent etc of course, which is why lawyers charge up front I suppose. But what of the stress and pressure in between? Not to mention the pressure on their family businesses. What of their access to justice?
No win no fee! Comes the cry. But these people generally want a high level of certainty for as little work as possible, they will not take cases that are not open and shut watertight. Then some barristers do work ‘pro bono’ (for free) in certain circumstances, but once again my friends were not those ‘certain circumstances’.
And when the cases come to court there will be a grand arena and two barristers will verbally joust it out hoping to catch the eye of the court on the day.
I am not calling for the legal aid budget to be protected. It needs to be cut. But what we need to do is have a debate about the state of justice in the UK. Why is it so expensive? Too many grand buildings involved? Too many grand people involved commanding even grander fees and salaries? Too many confusing procedures?
How can we claim such things as ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse’ if it costs you a fortune to use it let alone understand it?