Legal aid turns 70 amid calls for an overhaul
Legal aid, which provides legal assistance at public expense to many of those who cannot afford a lawyer, has turned 70 this week. However, legal aid’s 70th birthday has come amid growing calls for an urgent overhaul of the system.
In June, members of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) overwhelmingly voted in favour of direct action in response to the government’s cuts to legal aid, before calling off the strike after a pay offer. The Ministry of Justice has launched a comprehensive review of criminal legal aid fees, but concerns about legal aid are mounting.
On July 15, it emerged that the number of legal advice centres and not-for-profit advice services in England and Wales have halved since 2013–14. In the past six years, the number of local areas with law centres or agencies offering free legal services has fallen from 94 to 47, as a result of deep cuts to both legal aid and local authority funding.
Richard Miller, head of legal aid at the Law Society, claims that, since the 2013 cuts to legal aid, many have found themselves in the “ludicrous situation” of not being able to access the legal help they need. “The underlying premise of legal aid when it was brought in was that anybody should be able to defend their rights, regardless of their circumstances,'' he stated.
Legal aid spending has fallen by 37% between 2010/11 and 2017/18. Richard Atkins QC, chairman of the Bar Council, noted that many lawyers are acting on a pro-bono basis and lowering their rates to help those in need of legal advice, but “it is a sticking plaster, it is something that shouldn’t be happening and we would argue that the state should be providing funds”.
To be eligible for legal aid, an individual must demonstrate that they do not have enough money to pay for legal advice and that their case is serious. Sometimes, legal aid will not cover all the costs, and someone seeking help may have to pay some of the costs upfront.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “Access to justice is a fundamental pillar of society. That is why we spent a sixth of our total budget on legal aid last year, are investing up to £5 million in innovative technologies to help people access support wherever they are, and are doubling funding for litigants in person for the next two years.
“In addition we are expanding the scope of legal aid in some areas, and reviewing both the means test and criminal legal aid.”
“We educated, privileged lawyers have a professional and moral duty to represent the underrepresented in our society, to ensure that justice exists for all, both legal and economic justice.” — Sonia Sotomayor, associate justice of the Supreme Court
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LGBT+ groups and celebrities push for gender law reform
Over 100 LGBT+ organisations and celebrities are calling for the UK government to reform gender identity laws, according to the BBC. The Gender Recognition Act (GRA)—the first piece of legislation officially recognising transgender people and outlining the legal process by which someone can change their gender—was passed in 2004. It does not recognise non-binary identities and it requires a medical diagnosis or a presentation of evidence for transgender people to have their identities legally recognised. The Government Equalities Office stated that any reforms to the law must be carefully considered.
Cannabis to be legalised “within years”
A group of cross-party MPs returning from a research trip to Canada—which has recently legalised cannabis—predicted that the UK will fully legalise cannabis use within five to ten years. Following the trip, Labour’s David Lammy—who had been opposed to the legalisation of cannabis in line with Labour’s official stance—now wants the market “legalised, regulated and taken away from crime gangs”.
"The legalisation of [cannabis] would not eliminate the crime committed by the illicit trade, nor would it address the harms associated with drug dependence and the misery they can cause to families and society,” a Home Office spokesperson said. Cannabis is currently a Class B drug in the UK, although it can be prescribed for medicinal purposes.
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