Over my blog and Instagram, so far, I’ve written about cuts to the student nurse bursary (and tuition fees), benefits, NHS services, the police force and now – legal aid.
Perhaps one that is less known, because unlike the emergency services which you are likely to access/come into contact with within your lifetime, you might not ever be one of the 140,000 (this is a cut of 600,000 from 2010/2011) people a year who complete an application and receive legal aid.
Legal aid comes from the government (more specifically, the Legal Aid agency) and it was introduced to ensure that everybody gets their right to counsel, right to a fair trial and equality. Which is now seriously being hindered since the £950,000,000 cut since 2012. Terrifyingly, people with no law experience are forced to represent themselves in one of the most isolating places you have ever come across. There is nothing quite like the first time you see a courtroom, you know it’s a professional environment but it is so rigid and cold. There is no privacy in court, whether you are the perpetrator/victim/applicant/respondent.
Whilst there is the obvious issue of people having to give up fights earlier than they wished too – especially in custody cases – it causes other dilemma’s that wouldn’t come to mind immediately too. When someone is unrepresented, it means they act as their own counsel. It is known that qualifying to become a barrister in the UK takes at least five years, and there is a reason that their fee is so high. Knowing the law inside out is no mean feat, the jargon, the way people practice, so on. But, there are people from all different walks of life representing themselves, not always the defendent, not always the victim. Only thing that links these people is that they are not eligible for subsidised legal help. Like with all things austerity related, the cuts to legal aid make it nigh impossible to reform the troublesome justice system.
It is easy to feel pity for those who are representing themselves (‘litigants in person’ is the proper term) due to the financial strain (also, important to remember that some people will choose to represent themselves whether they are financially able to or not) but the emotional trauma it can cause a victim is great. Where in a courtroom a barrister would usually cross examine a victim, the lack of representation available for perpetrators has left a large amount of domestic abuse victims being questioned by their own abusers. This allows further trauma, emotional abuse and manipulation to continue within the walls of a court*.
An enormous amount of pressure is also placed on the judge to ensure that the unrepresented party has a fair trial. This in turn can appear to be unfair to the represented party during the court dates. Extra time is taken to ensure that they are understanding of what is happening and going to happen. There is more leniance for them, so they may have late admissions, extra evidence, witnesses, say things on the stand that would not be accepted from the legally represented side. That can be a difficult pill to swallow for many, but it is the only way that they can ensure as equal as possible trial.
Asides from domestic abuse cases in family court, the hefty cuts are inhibiting people from pursuing debt they are owed, people fighting for a better education, against immigration, shoddy housing, so on. It has also impacted the law career too. There is less money in certain fields, pushing barristers and solicitors out of their specialisms.
If you are unable to access legal aid and cannot afford counsel, please remember to utilise services around you. Most solicitors offer free thirty minute consultations, citizen’s advice bureau and organisations such as Rights of Women can also give legal advice. Here is some more information on free services available. Please always contact Women’s Aid, National Domestic Violence Hotline and 999 (in emergencies) the first two will help you to navigate the court proceedings at a time you are probably most unlikely to think straight!
In my first blog post of 2020, I think it is important that I highlight that these cuts are ongoing and we are continuing to live in an age of economic austerity with the end not yet in sight. Being quiet is not enough, and I continue to implore you to always use your voice.
*if you are currently going through this and are concerned the respondent (or defendent) will be questioning you (the applicant) it is possible to apply through the courts for the questions to be put through the judge first.