Published: 20 October 2017
Senior family court judge Mr Justice Bodey has stated that the impact of legal aid cuts have been detrimental, and that cases which involve individuals representing themselves are ‘shaming’ to preside over. After speaking at his retirement ceremony, it also became clear that he has had to cross-examine witnesses on behalf of litigants in person during his career.
This only highlights the concern among leading professionals regarding the slow progress that the Ministry of Justice are making when considering the effect of the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act. The act saw a total of £350 million withdrawn from the legal aid budget, meaning that the right to legal aid representation in divorce, child custody, welfare, employment, housing and many more cases was ended.
Cuts to the Legal Aid Budget
It is widely thought that the cuts are even worse than first expected, with family law being the most affected area of the justice system. Currently, more than 60% of family law cases involve unrepresented litigants on both sides. Lady Justice Hale, the newly appointed president of the Supreme Court, recently said that the LASPO cuts are probably ‘a false economy’. She also suggested that many legal problems would be solved by the introduction of early legal advice.
A recent review, backed by the Labour party and published by Lord Bach, asked for a further £400 million per year to restore better access to a system of more generous legal aid. The report claimed that when the legislation was first introduced, it was thought that £450 million would be saved every year; however legal aid spending was down by £950 million last year when compared to 2010. Statistics produced by the Government itself show that legal aid spending has fallen from £2.6 billion to £1.5 billion since 2005/06. It is also clear to see that the sharpest fall in spending came in 2013, following the introduction of LASPO.
Comments from Senior Figures
A senior court of appeal judge, Lady Justice Hallett, commented saying that cuts to legal aid had become a ‘huge burden’ on judges, lawyers, as well as litigants themselves. She did not want to ‘descend into the arena’ of the dispute due to the potential temptation to become a litigant’s advocate.
Over recent years, judges within the family division of the high court in London, including Mr Justice Bodey, have said that more people are representing themselves, despite not having the correct level of knowledge of the required skills. The judges feel their frustration and do indeed act as their counsel and ask the relevant questions when the individuals themselves do not. Speaking at the ceremony, Mr Justice Bodey said he finds it ‘shaming’ that he should preside over such cases‘in this country, with its fine record of justice and fairness’.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said: ‘Maintaining access to justice remains vital and continues to be at the heart of our reforms. We are focussing legal aid resources on those who most need help, which is why we are making wider changes which will make it easier for domestic violence victims to qualify for the financial support they need to pay for legal representation. We will announce details of the planned review of legal aid reforms in due course.’
Despite large criticism of the cutsfrom the National Audit Office, parliamentary select committees, campaign groups and senior judges, a review of the impact of LASPO is slow going, and is not set to be reported on until spring 2018.
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