100 Friends of Hackney Community Law Centre met on 31.1.11 to launch a local drive to halt Legal Aid Cuts and Court Closures.
Liz Davis, an experienced social welfare barrister and Chair of the Haldane Society reminded us that in 1949 when Legal Aid was created it was viewed as the fourth pillar of the welfare state, along with the NHS, education and a universal benefits system. At the time of its creation the Legal Aid system was capable of providing a service to 80% of the population (the other 20% being deemed to be sufficiently rich to pay for their own).
In recent years the proportion has fallen to 26%, and proposed cuts would mean that only those who were “virtually destitute” would receive a service if it still existed. Up to 50% of civil legal aid would be wiped out, and 500,000 people will lose a service
A young Somali woman who was present with her disabled mother spoke movingly from the floor, explaining how Legal Aid had saved them from being deported and led to them receiving refugee status. She had recently completed her degree and was working for her local council because she “wanted to put something back.”
A pensioner who used to work for the Court staff described a case concerning a woman who had been released from hospital to a police cell where she died. Her daughter was unable to obtain Legal Aid at the Inquest when the police, NHS and various other agencies all had their own barristers. Thus she was not allowed to ask questions effectively.
Legal Aid cuts would fall disproportionately on women, children, the elderly and the disabled, in other words the most vulnerable. One young lawyer in a Legal Aid firm said that clients who received services were ordinary people stuck in extraordinary circumstances. Often a small amount of help when a family was facing a crisis turned its future around.
12 Courts are to close in London over 18 months, 4,000 jobs could be lost to Court and Tribunal staff, and 11,000 in the Prison and Probation services. This shutting down of the legal system does not look promising.
There are concerns that with substantially less lawyers able to help extraordinary individuals in sadly all too common and ordinary difficulties, the Big Society we are apparently working in will become meaner and smaller.
100 people doesn't sound like very much, but each of these people knows 10 people who know these savage cuts are barmy. Ask those 10 people to sign up to http://www.justice-for-all.org.uk/Take-part/Love-legal-aid and pass on the message.