In 1949, the Legal Aid and Advice Act introduced the first form of free legal aid schemes for those who found themselves in front of a judge but could not afford a lawyer. Before that, free legal advice was only available through schemes run by volunteer lawyers.
At a basic level, the Legal Aid and Advice Act ensured that people who could not afford legal costs could apply for legal aid and receive money provided by the government to cover those costs. The idea was that a welfare state should safeguard legal protection for everyone, and that lawyers should not be working for free for that to be the case. Initially, aid was almost unlimited, covering about 80% of British people. Unfortunately, this extensive coverage did not last.
In the 1980s, the growing cost of the legal aid budget became a political issue. In 1986, total legal payments had risen to £419m a year. The net cost was a lower, at £342m after contributions were recovered, but still a significant sum. That same year, rising taxpayer concerns over this budgeting led to the first cuts to legal aid entitlements.
As the decades went by, cuts became almost routine by consecutive Tory and Labour governments. When fixed fees replaced hourly fees for legal aid cases, law firms were forced to choose between taking on a high quantity of fixed fee legal aid applications and lowering the time spent on each application, or limiting legal aid work to ensure that each caseworker would actually be able to manage their cases, deliver high-quality advice, and make a proper living. As a consequence, many legal aid providers started avoiding more complicated areas of the law like immigration and asylum, or at the very least limit the types of applications for which they provided legal aid, leaving migrants with less options to get the advice and the representation they so desperately need.
Thus, legal aid became progressively more limited, and eligibility requirements more stringent, until before the 2008 economic crisis, only 29% of people were eligible. In the aftermath of the banking crisis, the coalition government then passed the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), which was supposed to reduce legal aid spending by £350m by 2015. Criminal and family law aid, the former of which at one point accounted for 80% of the legal aid budget, were hit heaviest by the cuts, but funding for immigration cases also crippled, as almost all matters unrelated to asylum were removed from the scope of legal aid. For the very few immigration applications (human trafficking, asylum, domestic violence and immigration detention) that remained within its scope, the pay was cut even further.
Inevitably, these developments caused a wreckage in legal aid practices across the country. Half of all law centres and not-for-profit legal advice centres in England closed down since LASPO made it into law, and more people than ever are forced to represent themselves in court.
Yet again, Britain is failing the most vulnerable members of society. Asylum seekers’ access to justice and immigration law practitioners’ financial viability are dually strained, and a decrease in funding paired with an increase in demand has led us to where we are now: operating within a failing system, on the brink of collapse. The risk of collapse is more acute in some sectors such as family courts, just as conceivable in immigration tribunals. Like many other aspects of the welfare state, the legal aid process has been marketised, commercialised and as a consequence, dehumanised. We should aim to do better.
You can search for legal aid firms using the search tool on the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association here.