By Martin Allsopp, President of Birmingham Law Society
Significant changes to civil legal aid in England and Wales came into effect on 1 April 2013, as part of a plan to reform the system and save £350m a year. Whilst the government has recently announced a U-turn on introducing price competition in the criminal legal aid market, other cuts to legal aid are expected to go ahead.
Since April nearly all family law advice has been removed from the legal aid scheme. This means people can no longer get funding for divorce or child contact or residence disputes. The changes mean victims of domestic violence must have proof before they can get legal aid for family cases.
What options do people have? Many will have to pay privately for advice or (in the rare instances it is available) use no-win, no-fee lawyers, seek support from one of a number of charities that offer legal help, or represent themselves in trying to solve their disputes.
I was heartened to hear that Coventry Law Centre is establishing a specialist legal advice service in Birmingham to fill the gap left by the closure of Birmingham Law Centre. Law Centres defend the legal rights of people who cannot afford a lawyer. The new service will be based at the Bangladesh Centre in Sparkbrook.
In the legal profession there has been a long tradition of pro bono – providing legal assistance and support for free to those who would not be able to access it otherwise. In some countries, such as the USA, there are compulsory pro bono schemes in place which require lawyers to carry out a minimum number of pro bono hours. However, in England and Wales pro bono is voluntary.
Birmingham Law Society has its own Pro Bono Committee. Their view is that pro bono legal assistance complements, but is not a substitute for, legal aid. There will be many lawyers who would object to providing previously funded work for free. However, if each lawyer was able to provide some assistance on a pro bono basis, this could go a long way to ensuring the most vulnerable members of our society receive access to justice, described by Ken Clark as the “hallmark of a civilised society”.
As a profession, we need to think about what part we are prepared to play in upholding the traditions of our legal system in a difficult economic climate.