IN THE MOST FRIENDLESS WING OF THE WELFARE STATE
An appreciation by Phillip Taylor MBE and Elizabeth Taylor of Richmond Green Chambers
Legal aid in the UK has had a chequered history. As Helena Kennedy describes, in the foreword to this important book, that the original intention of legal aid was that it was to be an essential component of our welfare system, and to be the legal services pillar of the welfare state.
On 30th July 1949, when the Legal Aid and Advice Act was granted royal assent, its purpose was to ensure that anyone who needed legal advice would be able to access it – a laudable and utopian aim, but like most utopian objectives, very difficult to sustain and uphold. Disturbingly, legal aid has since been tinkered with, tampered with and considerably eroded.
View with alarm, for example just two examples of such erosion (among hundreds) cited by authors Steve Hynes and Jon Robins. ‘Successive governments since the 19080s’, they note, ‘had been toying with a conundrum: how to withdraw legal aid without removing access to justice for the ordinary person…According to a report from the London School of Economics, nine million adults fell out of scope for personal injury between 1972 and 1989’.
‘In 2000,’ say the authors, ‘New Labour embarked on a huge gamble. In one fell swoop ministers scrapped legal aid for routine personal injury cases. The almost immediate result was the emergence of new breeds of entrepreneurial law firms and a new breed of non-lawyer companies to fill the newly created justice gap.’
Thus was the legal landscape dismayingly and markedly changed amid waves of quietly expressed disquiet among those few members of the public who knew what was actually taking place whilst it was going on.
The publication of this short but concise 150 page book marks the 60th anniversary of the Legal Aid and Advice Act. As Helena Kennedy says, it does represent the first major critique of the government's lamentable record on legal aid.
Hynes & Robins provide both a history of and commentary on legal aid and delivers well informed and timely criticism of the current government's attempts to reform the system. Published by the Legal Action Group, the book takes an admirably practical stance on this thorny and difficult subject, postulating and suggesting a number of essential reforms to bridge that almost unbridgeable ‘justice gap.’
‘The book is an impressive attempt, says Liberty Director, Shami Chakrabarti, 'at preserving the hope that everyone might have access to justice in this country’. One hopes that ‘The Justice Gap’ will be considered essential reading – and an essential purchase – by policy makers present and future, as well as learners, trainees and practitioners in one of the most friendless wings of the welfare state.