Rosa Coleman is a marketing and development officer at the charity London Legal Support Trust and blogs about how access to justice and legal aid is under threat, and what you can do to help.
Introduced in 2012, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) sweeping cuts have impacted the sector hugely; access to justice is arguably being treated as no longer a right, but a privilege available only to those who can afford to pay, and know how to access it.
What is access to justice?
Access to justice means that people should be able to equally access legal support, advice, and representation if they need, irrespective of their financial position. Individuals should be able to fairly seek and achieve remedies for grievances, and be able to enforce their economic and social rights, without needing to be in a position of wealth or power. However, many people are unable to access justice due to multiple barriers including legal aid cuts, as well as court closures.
Legal aid crisis
There is a legal aid crisis. Between 2005 and 2018, 56% of all legal aid providers were lost, and the proportion of not-for-profit providers fell by a staggering 64% over the same period.
In the last 5 years:
- There's been an 84% decline in the number of publicly funded family legal aid advice cases
- There's been a 42% decline in the number of publicly funded housing legal aid advice cases
(Figures are from government data).
Specialist free legal advice organisations that still manage to keep their doors open in this very difficult climate are increasingly facing immense pressure due to the level of demand for their services, including but not limited to, complexity and low hourly rate of the contracts that they run, challenges of recruiting social welfare legal practitioners, and wellbeing of their frontline staff
says CEO of the London Legal Support Trust, Nezahat Cihan.
If the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members, how is justice achievable for the most vulnerable, when so many people are wholly unable to access the support they need? Assuming there is even a provider in their area (you only need to look at the Law Society's 'End Legal Aid Deserts' research to see the geographic access issues), many people are simply unable to seek help as the area they need advice on is no longer covered by legal aid.
So, is this decreasing access to justice simply accepted by the legal profession as the 'new reality'? The legal community's actions would suggest not.
The reality is that the legal community is working harder than ever to enable access to justice. Legal aid solicitors are consistently going beyond their billable legal aid contract remit, in order to help vulnerable clients.
Pro bono - for the public good
Barristers are working pro bono to help unrepresented people in need (with almost 800 barristers helping clients in 2018 through Advocate, the Bar's pro bono charity), partners in City law firms are working to instil an ethos of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and pro bono throughout their firms, and social welfare solicitors in advice agencies are finding creative ways around lack of funding in this time of unprecedented cuts. Whilst there is a huge deficit of funding for the justice sector, there is undoubtedly a resilience amongst the legal community that cannot be denied.
Walk for justice
The London Legal Walk is a prime example of the sense of community and care that the legal sector has, and the commitment the professions demonstrate to improving access to justice. The biggest event in the legal calendar, the Legal Walk sees thousands of people walking a sponsored 10k route through central London, all to fundraise for the London Legal Support Trust. The London Legal Support Trust supports free legal advice centres across London and the South East. They do this through the provision of grant funding, supporting infrastructure of the sector, and helping agencies reduce costs and save money via pro bono or discounted schemes.
On Monday 21 May 2018, an incredible 13,000+ solicitors, barristers, judges, advice agencies, support staff, trainees, students, with their dogs, and more, came together for the 2018 London Legal Walk to show their commitment to access to justice, and fundraise for the cause. As a grant giver, the London Legal Support Trust relies on this huge fundraising event to help support over 100 free legal advice charities every year. It would not be possible to fund this critical work without the generous support, commitment, and enthusiasm of the entire legal sector.
The London Legal Walk returns this year on Monday 17 June, and looks set to be another record breaker. Access to justice may be struggling, but the legal profession isn't letting it disappear without a fight.
You can register to join the London Legal Walk as an individual, or as a team. LLST will register your team, set up your fundraising page, and provide you with posters to recruit walkers – it is so easy to join.
Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.
See all of the Legal Walks happening across England, including Hastings, Tunbridge Wells, Brighton, Epsom and more
London Legal Walkies returns Saturday 21 September 2019, bring your canine crusader
Explore our Solicitors' pro bono toolkit and Pro Bono Manual
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about pro bono
Read our 2018 blog by Laura Bee Pro bono – good for the community, good for lawyers too
Read founder and head of fundraising at the London Legal Support Trust Bob Nightingale's blogs How to fundraise for a Legal Walk: 6 top tips and London Legal Walk: supporting access to justice
Explore LawWorks | The Solicitors Pro Bono Group