On the 14 July 2017, the Sun Newspaper blasted (in typical Sun-style) the supply of legal aid for an alleged terrorist whilst, at the same time, criticising the failure to provide legal aid to the victims and family members of the Hyde Park bombing. As is often the case, the headlines of the Sun are directed towards cases where legal aid is provided to persons accused of criminal acts. This is, and remains, a fundamental failure to appreciate British values i.e. the fact that everyone is entitled to a fair trial. It is a sad indictment of our world that when legal aid was being taken away from the victims of serious criminal actions (and/or those who might have been otherwise injured), the same tabloids cheered from the sidelines.
Notoriously, it has only been when those same journalists and/or MPs have been before the criminal courts and acquitted has the realisation of unfairness dawned. In other words, it is only when they have been confronted with the fact that they aren’t going to recover any money has it really struck home to them that the situation is inequitable. It is equally so when tragedies such as Grenfell, the child abuse scandal or deliberate acts such as the Hyde Park and Birmingham pub bombings that the victims of these incidents come to the forefront of people’s minds.
What the paper really needs to ask itself is: why should the families be expected to fund their claims in the first place? Why, as a society, are we no longer prepared to stand side-by-side with those victims and survivors and say you are entitled to be funded better than those who are accused of these crimes?
Legal aid rates have not changed since the 1990s. As such, the notion of the specialist, legal aid lawyer has continued to gather apace. This is because new lawyers are no longer attracted to this area. More importantly, the means assessment threshold (Income and Capital allowance) has also not changed for many years. As such, at a base layer, many people working for minimum wage - and not even full time - are excluded from the provision of legal aid; or they are often expected to pay considerable sums towards it.
If a person owns a property, they are almost certainly excluded from legal aid, as there is a cap of £8,000 on capital. This cap applies whether or not that person can liquidate that property (such as a family home) to pay for a lawyer or not.
Of particular interest is that in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the governments can apply an increased rate so more people are eligible for legal aid. By contrast, in England, a very small number of people are eligible for legal aid. This is especially so in London, where the cost of living is far higher. As such, those excluded from legal aid are generally the victims; or those that are working simply because the Lord Chancellor has chosen to not to review the means assessment.
We already know that the issues within Grenfell were issues which would have previously been raised by housing lawyers long before the tragedy. The new Lord Chancellor mistakenly thought that legal aid was available, which does suggest that legal aid should - and must - be revisited sooner rather than later.
The current Inquires are largely because of the failures of the state to ensure that those affected had a proper opportunity to report concerns and to be taken seriously whether through a state-funded lawyer or not. It is high time that there was a state funded Inquiry into the failure of the state to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those that they have hurt, both directly and indirectly and further failed by not providing legal aid.
Authored by Adam Tear