Today two figures have been released of Legal Aid costs – (Hey) Abu Qatada at £650,000 and the two men jailed for the murder of Stephen Lawrence costing £425,000. Many are already saying that this is a disgrace and that that kind of money could be better spent, but controversially I think it’s a good thing that people have the right to supported means of protecting and defending themselves in a court of law if they cannot afford it.
For every high profile case there are numerous small ones that rely on this system to allow them fair representation in court. Legal aid is a means tested programme that only provides what the defendant cannot so it is no use complaining about the system just because three of the recent users are high profile and unpopular names. There are numerous charities and groups who claim that Legal aid has allowed many to prosecute sexual attackers, perpetrators of domestic violence, it has helped disabled people challenge decisions on housing and access and also supports the man on the street against big corporation. This system is one of the best in the world – but also one of the most expensive at £2bn per year. So of course the government have made cuts.
Wile they have blocked the super rich from being able to use the system they are also cutting £220m from criminal Legal Aid and another £350m in civil cases claiming in times of austerity there are priorities elsewhere. I would disagree. Yes there needs to be some form of safeguard against those with the capacity to pay from abusing the system, but everyone has the right to a fair trial and by stopping Legal Aid in some cases, or capping it in others people can be left without the support and guidance they need to ensure that fairness.
The Children’s society has real concerns with some of the new legislation and changes being put forward: Chief executive Matthew Reed said: “These proposals will see the UK block access to legal aid for vulnerable children, undermining their rights and leaving some of the most marginalised young people without help.” While the Daily Mail can sit in judgement of the Lawrence and Qatada cases it must realise that bashing the idea is also doing other people using it a disservice and gives ministers licence to seek further cuts that appear popular until the small print is examined. There have been issues of lawyers taking advantage of the system in the same way some members of the public have but to throw the baby out with the bathwater and give the impression that Legal Aid is “a waste of tax-payers money” is disingenuous and misleading.