70 Years of Legal Aid: My Experience as a Family Solicitor
“Justice denied anywhere diminishes Justice everywhere” - Martin Luther King Jr.
It was these words, amongst others, that solidified my desire to work with clients under the Legal Aid scheme. When I started to specialise in Children Act matters and working with victims of domestic abuse, I realised part of the satisfaction of representing legally aided clients was bringing justice to some of the most vulnerable, overlooked, and disadvantaged sectors of society.
It has been 70 years since royal assent was given to the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949. Undoubtedly, Legal Aid has changed significantly in these past 70 years.
Initially, around 80% of the population was entitled to receive Legal Aid. This has dropped dramatically, and there are estimates to suggest now only 20% would be able to receive it. Further, the financial assessment which needs to be completed for many Legal Aid applications has not changed for a significant period of time. The financial threshold that a client needs to be under to be financially entitled to Legal Aid (let alone the legal merits side, or the gateway evidence needed) has not increased to allow for inflation for years.
In recent years, however, nothing has impacted on Legal Aid quite as much as the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (aka LASPO).
I remember feeling somewhat dismayed when LASPO came into force. It removed Legal Aid for many people who would have previously qualified for it.
Further, any money saved by the government in with-holding any Legal Aid, will be spent elsewhere, such as costing the Courts more to work with an ever-growing amount of litigants in person, or cases going to court that would have never been issued.
Despite LASPO, Legal Aid is still available for many seeking family advice, which many people do not realise.
For care proceedings and PLO meetings (i.e. when the Local Authority are involved at a certain level and/or apply to Court for orders in respect of children) Legal Aid is available for parents, those with Parental Responsibility, and the subject children themselves under the non-means and non-merits scheme. It does not matter whether you work, what you earn, or what the chances of success are, you are entitled to Legal Aid funding.
For other areas of family law, clients are subjected to means and/or merits testing along with a requirement for gateway evidence (proof of domestic abuse or child abuse) (https://checklegalaid.service.gov.uk/scope/diagnosis/n43n14). If you do not meet these requirements, Legal Aid is simply not available to you. Family lawyers are not funded to assist clients in getting gateway evidence, which has often meant I have had to check letters purporting to be gateway evidence two or three times, each time sending the client away to speak to the agency providing the letter, as it does not meet the Legal Aid Agency’s stringent requirements.
Importantly, obtaining urgent Non-Molestation Orders and Occupation Orders (family law injunctions) are only subject to the financial means testing. This means that victims of domestic abuse are still entitled to receive Legal Aid to keep them safe.
It really is a minefield, and getting the evidence right is imperative. This is before we even get to giving our clients any real advice or assistance!
“Domestic violence causes far more pain than the visible marks of bruises and scars” - Dianne Feinstein (US Senator)
Many family law issues end up being intertwined. I might represent a parent in care proceedings who has been the victim of domestic abuse and/or suffered their own childhood trauma, who self-medicates with drugs and/or alcohol, who has psychological and/or psychiatric issues, amongst other worries. Consequently, as well as their legal knowledge, Family lawyers also require some medical knowledge, an ability to provide emotional and practical support, an understanding of suitable courses and local resources, (which have had financial cuts of their own), and so on.
“The message must be that there is still a vital role for publicly funded legal services to play in our legal system”. - Lady Hale
Every day in the life of a Legal Aid lawyer is different. It’s stressful, exciting, thankless (at times), and you have 100 things on the go at the same time, but you feel like you have really made a difference at the end of the day. I would not have it any other way. Here’s to another 70 years of Legal Aid!