There has been an explosion of interest in legal services in the last 12 months. Against this backdrop the CAB service has dealt with over half a million inquiries connected with legal aid, lawyers and the courts.
Barriers to Justice, a report of CAB clients' experience of the legal system, draws on evidence from over 350 CABx throughout England and Wales, and shows that the legal system is failing many people.
As any legal aid solicitor will be aware, cuts in legal aid eligibility in 1993 have been a major factor in denying many thousands of people access to the legal system. The withdrawal of the contributory element of Green Form schemes has meant that many people are unable to get even the initial advice and assistance they need to establish the strengths or weaknesses of their case and what action they can take.
In addition, cuts in eligibility for free civil legal aid have resulted in people being offered legal aid but subject to payment of a contribution they simply cannot afford. As a result they are having to drop their case or proceed on their own. In one case a single parent with two children wished to oppose an application for a contact order from the father of her nine-year-old-child. Her income was just under £40 a week. The Legal Aid Board granted her legal aid with a contribution of £60.80 a month. She could not afford this and was having to choose between representing herself or dropping the case. Bureaux face such problems almost daily.
The requirement that contributions should be paid over the lifetime of the case, instead of for one year, has also deterred people from pursuing their case. Although the legal aid bill rose dramatically in the late 1980s and early 1990s, following the cuts in 1993 this trend was reversed. Legal aid expenditure has now stabilised. In 1993/4, £96 million of the £1.3 billion set aside for legal aid was never used. The underspend was even greater in 1994/5, £98.5 million short of budgeted expenditure.
As the cases quoted in Barriers to Justice illustrate, the problem with controlling expenditure by cutting legal aid entitlement is that the people who suffer are those who are denied the legal advice and help they need because they do not qualify for financial assistance from the State and they cannot afford to pay.
There are other ways of controlling cost the Government should examine to establish the real cause of the dramatic rise in expenditure. Look at lawyers' fees, court delays and the impact of legislation.
It is important to establish the extent to which legislation is responsible for the growth in expenditure. The growth of police station advice schemes, together with the growth in the number of civil legal aid certificates issued following the implementation of the Children Act in October 1991, have contributed to the increase.
Another reason that costs are high is the court system in which lawyers have to operate. Lord Woolf's report Access to Justice attempts to tackle some of the problems with the current system, particularly delays, which can push up costs.
If people are contemplating taking the case themselves then they will frequently look to their local CAB for information, advice and support.
CABx are having to advise on more complex cases requiring longer and more detailed interviews and more follow-up work. Even where clients are eligible for legal aid, bureaux have found that the drop in the number of solicitors willing to take on such work has often left clients without help.
The Lord Chancellor's long awaited Green Paper on the future of legal aid, Legal Aid – Targeting Need, proposes radical new ways of organising public expenditure on legal services. The proposals envisage a role for advice agencies as well as solicitors and 24 CABx are currently engaged in a pilot scheme to see if this could work. Changes in the way legal aid is administered have already taken place with certain solicitors obtaining franchises for legal aid work, resulting in higher rates of pay and delegation of some powers from the Legal Aid Board.
However, as the evidence from CABx clearly shows, whatever the future administrative arrangements for the delivery of publicly funded legal services, cuts in legal aid eligibility have to be a priority. The Government should revive the original principles of legal aid to provide help with legal cost not just for the poor but also for those of moderate means. The aim should be to retain the heart of the legal aid scheme while exploring new methods of delivery which will improve access to justice.