With the election now fully in swing the focus of the major political parties has been placed firmly on free access to healthcare and which one likes it the most. An issue curiously absent from the airwaves, however, has been access to justice and the effect of recent cuts to Legal Aid.
The lack of media and political attention might lead one might think that the issue was not one of great concern to the ordinary person, however, a new YouGov poll released today would suggest that the public is actually even more concerned about access to justice than the NHS.
84% of those replying rated access to justice as a fundamental right, compared with 82% for healthcare that is free at the point of use and 79% for the state pension. It may be that more people than previously thought believe that access to justice is a fundamental right irrespective of income.
Robin Murray, vice-chair of the CLSA, said that the poll “nails the lie that people do not care about legal aid as a political issue. The findings are a definitive statement to all political parties that the public believe access to justice, underpinned by legal aid, is a fundamental right. Despite five years of unrelenting cuts and dishonest rhetoric that ‘we cannot afford the system as it currently stands’, the public have signalled their support for legal aid is unwavering. This is where we plant our flag. This is where we raise our standard. This is where we draw a line in the sand. This is where we fight for the justice our people deserve.’’
The poll’s findings were released the same day as the government introduced new charges for pleading not guilty to a crime. If found guilty after trial the charges can reach up to £1,200 with prison sentences for those who cannot pay. There are fears that defendants could make false guilty pleas in order to avoid the heavy costs.
Richard Monkhouse, chairman of the Magistrates’ Association said “We see an awful lot of people who are offending because they have no money, so just slapping another fine on them, another costs element on them, isn’t actually going to make a big difference if they’re not able to pay.”
The number of litigants-in-person appearing before in court without legal representation has increased resulting in a system of do-it-yourself justice. Thousands of people are now finding themselves alone having to navigate complex legal procedure without the assistance of a qualified solicitor or barrister.
The Government has claimed that despite slashing legal aid there would still be a safety net for the most vulnerable, however, of the 1,500 applications for Exceptional Case Funding only 69 have been successful.
The CLSA will stage a ‘vote for justice rally’ in which thousands of solicitors will rally on 23 April in Westminster in the hopes of drawing attention to Legal Aid cuts as an election issue.