Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has been laying out proposals for changes in legal aid that will limit the types of cases where legal aid is available, therefore savings significant costs. Currently over 2 billion a year is spent on legal aid in the UK, an amount that is more than ten times that of France. Areas where legal aid will no longer be available will include claims against hospitals, doctors and schools, immigration, benefit and employment disputes and family law cases. Also in the proposals is that fees for legal aid solicitors will be cut by 10%. It is being seen by supporters as removing legal aid where it is being wasted but keeping it where it is really seen as necessary, while critics say that it will mean the poorest members of society will in some cases be unable to get justice.
So, what will be the impact of these changes should they go ahead?
One area of law that has significantly increased over the last decade is no-win no-fee suits. Currently the costs, and therefore solicitors fees, are recovered from the losing side. This is something that will no longer be possible.
In most cases legal aid will no longer be available in cases against public institutions such as doctors, hospitals and schools. Cases that will be affected will include those seeking legal action after medical mistakes. With regard to schools it is likely to limit the number of accident claims and appeals against school entrance. Some would argue that not being able to take legal action for genuine accidents is a good thing while other say it means that institutions will no longer be held responsible for a lack of care.
Family Law is seen as an area that will be impacted most by these proposed changes. Half of the total money saved will happen in the area of family law alone. Legal aid will still be available in cases that involve domestic violence, forced marriage and child abduction, but in a relatively straight forward case it will not be the case.
In general it is expected that the number of so called minor legal disputes will be less commonplace. This is something supporters see as a major plus points, on top of the obvious fact that it will save public money. The changes may put to an end (to an extent anyway) the increasing culture of looking for blame to profit from unfortunate situations, such as minor accidents. Some see certain cases as people taking advantage of legal aid where they would not pursue the case if they had to pay for it themselves, even if they could afford to. This will therefore reduce unnecessary legal action.
There are, of course, potential problems. Some are worried that the less well off will suffer unfairly, that there will be situations where people will not get justice where someone better off, and able to afford legal advice themselves, will be able to carry a case forward. It could also lead to irresponsibility with businesses, organisations and individuals held less responsible for their actions.
Andrew Marshall (c)