Editor’s note: Guest contributor David Williamson authored the following commentary on recent developments in the availability of legal aid in the UK. Mr. Williamson is an experienced legal content writer and works for Coles Solicitors. Although the article does not touch on litigation funding in representative actions specifically, the availability of legal aid and other sources of litigation funding is an important topic related to ongoing debate on the need for development of class actions and other representative and multi-party dispute resolution mechanisms in jurisdictions outside of the US. Many thanks to Mr. Williamson for his contribution.
Post Legal Aid Reform: Observations since its Passing
As of the beginning of April this year, the UK ushered in sweeping changes to the sixty-year-old Legal Aid legislation; implementing heavy cut-backs and making eligibility stricter. However, how has the UK legal climate changed since its passing? Heated dialogue seemed to circulate the issue for many months, with many claiming the changes will cripple the courts, and others arguing that they will do wonders for the British economic deficit. However, now the issue has settled down it is prime time to look at what exactly has occurred and what legacy this may leave on the broader UK legal climate.
Legal Aid Reform: In a Nutshell:
If you’re not from the UK, the chances are you are not entirely familiar the Legal Aid reforms that are holding the spotlight during this discussion. The reforms, which cut public spending by up to £350m, meant that to be eligible to claim Legal Aid, one had to prove a disposable income of around £1,000, whereas before the figure stood at a much more generous £8,000. Therefore, with such a massive decrease in the amount one needs to have saved to be eligible, the reforms are sure to have affected thousands of claimants. In fact, the government’s own figures stated up to 623,000 people could miss out on financial assistance in court, with the less well-off, working class families being the hardest hit. The areas of law targeted by the reforms were mainly clinical negligence claims, educational and employment law, immigration, private family law, divorce and custody battles and debt/housing issues.
Increase in Self Representation?
Now, though – 2 or so weeks after the cuts, what seems to have occurred as a result? Well, recently a report into legal trends and how the court process is operating since the reforms found out a curiously novel result. The answer: an increase in people representing themselves in court.
In fact, this study comes hand in hand with a release of an ‘idiots guide’ to legal representation, issued by the Bar Council. Within, the guide stipulates when one should speak, when one should stand, correct salutations and a rough guide to how to address the court. In fact, in the rather tongue in cheek guide, specific attention was paid on people not behaving like court-room lawyers they may have seen on TV. Perhaps it’s a little early to analyse the statistics thus far as to whether there has been any real rise in this sort of self-representation, however, it is certainly something to keep an eye on as it is a very real (and for many people – the only real) alternative to Legal Aid.
An alternative model of the British Legal Aid bill has been in effect in the USA for a long time now, and it is proving to be highly successful. Pro Bono legal help, especially in places like New York, ensure that solicitors pledge at least 50 hours per year to Pro Bono legal cases. With this in mind, could it not be obvious to apply this same model to the UK legal climate now there exists this apparent vacuum for Legal Aid?
Of course, this seems like the most sensible solution but, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like the UK legal climate has properly taken hold on this front as of yet. It is only early days so perhaps this will soon change, but thus far there have been little developments on this front. However, that being said, there is – and have been for some time – many highly qualified solicitors in the UK willing to carry out Pro Bono work, but it would seem they are greatly understaffed and rather poorly spread out across the country. A quick poll revealed that London benefits from a reassuring 59 free legal advice clinics, where as there are only 29 in the whole of the North of England, and only 3 in all of Wales.
A rather novel argument has recently been made for the case of law students and those currently in training or entry-level positions. This argument lays an obligation on these young solicitors to carry out an as-yet undetermined amount of Pro Bono work in their spare time, giving help to the reported 650,000 cases that the current system cannot support. This also raises moral questions, though; such as is it fair to make it compulsory for student who are perhaps under qualified and inexperienced take on cases which can have dire consequences on those in party to the case? And, is it fair to force these already pressured individuals to give up their free time to work for no money?
Overall, it would seem the UK legal climate has not crippled under the changes to Legal Aid legislation. The assumptions of many nay-Sayers seem to have been premature and instead of the poorest being denied all forms of legal representation, a new dialogue has emerged prompting creative changes to age-old problems. Of course, those who can afford pricey legal representation still win a much greater number of cases than those who can only afford cheaper or subsidised help. This has always been the case and the results thus far seem to suggest the Legal Aid reform in the UK hasn’t altered this as drastically as once thought.