Under the slogan “Justice for All” the union Unite has launched a campaign to oppose the current legal aid budget cuts of £350 million. Over 800 legal and advice agencies, charities, trade unions and community groups have come together to defend the principles on which the legal aid system was set up in 1949, and to make recommendations for a modern service.
Interest in this issue at Westminster on 12 January resulted in a committee room so packed to overflowing that the campaign launch had to be held twice. Above the hubbub politicians could be heard promising support. But anyone with an ear to hear could detect the warnings: every speech was prefaced with the twin mantras: “We need to deal with the deficit”, and “There can be no blank cheque”.
The roots of legal aid can be traced back to the 19th century, in the right to a fair trial and to the right of the poor to receive the free advice of counsel. Where it was mandatory to be represented, duty solicitors were established. Essentially, however, this was Victorian charity and individual legal action.
But as trade unions began supporting their members with legal advice (which often had the effect of heading off industrial action), governments were forced to consider a state system of means-tested aid, and the Legal Aid and Advice Act for England and Wales was passed in 1949. In Scotland a similar system extended also to criminal cases.
The main principle was recognition that the working class still had relatively little redress under capitalism. In the years following World War II the principle of collective rights based on public policy prevailed, and in areas such as employment law, the family, housing, health, education, and care provision, people were assisted in the teeth of unreasonable employers, grasping landlords, or intransigent bureaucracy.
But as capitalism stumbled from crisis to crisis, from Thatcher to Blair to Brown, and from industrial production to finance capital, regressive ideas of “the market” and “consumer choice” replaced those of the collective. In 1999 Labour’s Access to Justice Act replaced the 1949 Act and opened the way to privatisation.
It is estimated that up to 30 per cent of the population in Britain need access to legal aid at one time or another in their lives. The only exclusions today are libel cases, personal injury (subject to conditional fee agreements), and running a business.
Legal aid remains more accessible than anywhere else in the world. It is a cornerstone of British society, saving lives, rescuing families from violence, debt, eviction, and repossession. Campaigners must remind themselves constantly of the causes of this current capitalist failure, and deal with the banks. Otherwise there will be no justice for all – simply a skeleton service for the most abject cases, as in the 19th century.