I qualified as a solicitor in 2006 and since then I have assisted clients with the benefit of legal aid funding.
There is little doubt that the existence of legal aid has helped many obtain professional legal advice at a time it is most needed. I specialise in family law and for obvious reasons family law, human rights, and the importance of access to justice are closely connected.
Without legal aid funding there are many who would not be able to instruct a solicitor or have a barrister represent them. Clients might need to respond to an application by a Local Authority seeking to remove their children into foster care. Client’s might need to make an urgent application to the Family Court for an order that their children live with them, perhaps due to the risks posed by dangerous ex-partner. Client’s might need advice as to how the matrimonial assets will be divided on divorce and perhaps those assets are in the sole name of the other spouse.
There is little doubt therefore of the benefits that legal aid has brought and the assistance it has given to so many. However, I have also seen the limits of the legal aid system. Those client’s who earn too much to financially qualify for legal aid but at the same time cannot afford to pay for legal advice. Potential recipients of legal aid being told that as they cannot prove they were the victims of domestic violence (it arguably can be a hidden crime) they are ineligible. I have lost count of the number of times I have told a potential client, who needed advice, that I was sorry but that I was unable to help as they didn’t qualify for legal aid.
Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 reduced the availability of legal aid for many. The gap between those that needed legal advice and those that could afford to pay for it widened. There are arguments why, at that time, public spending needed to be reduced. However, what is clear it is that there is a need for legal organisations to offer advice on a pro-bono basis. Although few would argue that this would be a satisfactory substitute for a properly funded legal aid system.
At SHU Law we provide pro-bono advice to our clients. Within the family department we have assisted clients who have been told by social services that they are unable to care for their grandchildren and wish to challenge that assessment. We have assisted clients who need to apply to the Family Court for an order for their children. The clients we have assisted would not be eligible for legal aid and would likely not have the funds to pay for a solicitor. In a time of austerity and difficult economic circumstances the need for legal organisations to provide pro-bono advice is even more important.