The Legal Aid Crisis - The Source and the PSU

Daniel Priestley - Writer and Editor

“Am I going to be able to get someone to represent me?” or “Am I entitled to legal aid?”

Questions heard by PSU volunteers, every day across the country from desperate individuals on one of the hardest days of their life,  which are on most occasions met with the answer they don’t want to hear. Austerity measures have left the general public with one option: turning to charities. The Personal Support Unit is a charity that is based within the courts, which provides practical and emotional support to people representing themselves in person (known as litigants in person). In Cardiff there is a unit on the ground floor of the Cardiff Civil and Family Justice Centre (or the Family/County Court to the layman) which I have now been working in for over 5 months. The actions of a PSU volunteer can vary from setting out court procedure, helping clients understand the position they are in, going into court with them, drafting witness statements and the list goes on. But the real question is of why a charity like the PSU is even needed.

Austerity within the legal system has come in many forms but at present the most significant cuts have been made to the availability of legal aid. In 1949, the Legal Aid and Advice Act established a fundamental pillar of the post-war welfare state by providing a scheme for the payment for person with insufficient means to fund legal costs. Upon the passing of the act 80% of the population qualified for legal aid. However a decline over time in the provision available and more recent significant legislative changes passed under the banner of money saving, have compromised the system. By 2008 only 29% of all households were eligible to civil legal aid. Following the financial crash in 2008 both major parties promised reform of legal aid; in their 2010 Election Manifestos, the Labour Party promised to find “greater savings in legal aid and the Conservative Party promised a fundamental review of legal aid. After the forming of their government, the Lib-Con coalition passed The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 which took effect on the 1st of April 2013. This removed legal aid for most cases involving housing, welfare, debt, employment, immigration, family and medical negligence. This has caused a vast increase in the number of people representing themselves in these types of claims due to an inability to afford legal representation.

One of the difficulties in dealing with this crisis is the sheer volume of clients that the PSU and similar services now have to deal with. Before LASPO, civil legal aid was granted in 785,000 cases but by 2017-18 that figure had fallen to 140,000. In 2010-11 the PSU provided support to 7,000 clients but by 2017-18 the number had increased to 65,000 In the same time period the clients have gone from 31% being regarding family cases to 59.52% showing that this increase in clients is clearly as a direct result of legal aid funding being removed from family cases by LASPO. These services do struggle to meet the demand, for example the PSU in Cardiff can sometimes support 40-50 clients a day with potentially only two or three volunteers.

An additional problem is caused by the PSU’s inability to give legal advice to people. This means that there is only so far they can go to help a client and the burden still rests on the individual representing themself - PSU volunteers can only explain the options available, the litigant in person has to work out the route they want to go by themself. Litigants in person also often have many other difficulties such as mental health issues, living in poverty conditions or English being their second language which makes it both harder for them to represent themself and harder for services such as the PSU to assist them in the process.

So why have these cuts managed to cause such disaster in the legal system without a significant public outcry? The government justified them citing two reasons, the first of those being the vast cost of legal aid, therefore making cutting it a significant saving in a world post-financial crash. This justification is complete nonsense for two reasons. Firstly, especially in family proceedings, many cases are coming to court when they really shouldn’t be. Lawyers used to persuade clients to attempt things like mediation which cost significantly less and usually come to better outcomes which prevented many claims taking up valuable court time. Secondly, proceedings with litigants in person tend to last significantly longer than those with lawyers as the legal adviser, magistrate or judge ends up having to walk the litigant in person through the process. In many cases the self represented person will be in floods of tears trying to present a case which is on a human level incredibly traumatic for the individual but on a practical level, lasts vastly longer than a lawyer calmly making the same argument. The second justification to remove legal aid is one of a more ideological nature. It argues that individuals should take personal responsibility for their legal disputes rather than relying on the state to fund them. This is fairly standard right wing logic which on the surface level appears to make sense but when you drill down into it is complete nonsense. For example, if someone brings a claim against you, especially one that is unfounded and frivolous, why should you have to bare the burden of cost when you’re not the one bringing the case to court. However on a deeper level, the legal system is an entity that the government should be held responsible for and should put funding into. The government is not directly responsible for illness or poverty but it is the very entity that crafts the legal system into being and therefore should ensure that everyone is able to participate in it effectively.

- The Justice Gap - Steven Hynes and Jon Robins
- Lady Hale at London South Bank University - Young Legal Aid Lawyers: Social Mobility
- Photo Credit - Inaki del Olmo -


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