Is either legal aid or the NHS less important?
This article was first published in Solicitors Journal on 20 October 2015 and is reproduced by kind permission.
Access to justice is undeniably less immediate in its nature than a medical emergency, but the long-term repercussions for people are not incomparable, says Pippa Allsop
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has been compelled to revaluate his position this month, in relation to what the British Medical Association previously branded a ‘wholesale attack’ on doctors. The row over the government’s proposals for a new junior doctors contract to be implemented in August 2016 has led to threats of strike action from those who will be affected. The juniors argue the changes will not only ‘devalue’ their role, but more importantly, increased working hours will also put NHS patients at risk.
Though undoubtedly the requirements for facilitating access to free healthcare and access to justice are entirely different, nonetheless the question arises: is either one less important? Admittedly, many junior solicitors, while justifiably complaining about their hours of work, could hardly complain about their salaries. Overtime for solicitors is a laughable concept, a pipedream, and yet, is ensuring that everyone (no matter their financial means) has access to legal representation when they need it really so unimportant?
Comparing medical needs to legal ones is clearly a difficult exercise. Access to justice is undeniably less immediate in its nature than a medical emergency, but it could be argued that the long-term repercussions for people are not incomparable. Were the legal aid firms who could no longer stay afloat due to the significant cuts since 2012 not squeezed out as a result of similar pressures to those the NHS is currently contending with?
It is widely acknowledged by professionals in the legal industry that the cuts to legal aid have caused significant disadvantages to both solicitors and Joe Public. In summary, legal aid has been gradually reduced, and now ultimately almost totally removed, in family law, unless first, there is domestic violence involved, and second, it can be proved.
Furthermore, the ongoing consequence of eroding legal aid is not only narrowing the most vulnerable people’s access to justice, but also contributing to a growth of the number of litigants in person who are unfamiliar with court processes and, as a result, need to be guided by the judiciary. This continues to add to the amount of case management judges need to undertake, exacerbating delays and increasing costs incurred overall.
And lack of legal aid is not the only barrier to access to justice. The Ministry of Justice has just announced it proposes to merge 31 courts and close a further 91 altogether. It is hardly a reassurance for those who are economically disadvantaged that the plans will mean ‘over 95 per cent of citizens will be able to reach their required court within one hour by car’.
As the president of the Law Society, Jonathan Smithers, so aptly summarised, ‘[with] planned increases in court fees and reductions in eligibility for legal aid, many of the proposed closures will serve to deepen the inequalities in the justice system between those who can and cannot afford to pay’.