Labour peer comes to the aid of legal aid 

 

Legal aid is under attack. 
 
At £2bn a year, the UK leads the world with one of the most expensive legal aid systems, according to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
 
In an effort to slash £350m from the legal aid budget, the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 will remove financial support from most cases involving housing, welfare, debt, immigration and family law cases except domestic violence.
 
The MoJ has embraced the new legislation, saying the Act will limit legal aid to cases "where legal help is most needed, where people's life or liberty is at stake or they are at risk of serious physical harm, face immediate loss of their home or their children may be taken into care, [while] reducing the £2.1bn per year legal aid bill..."
 

Enter Lord Bach

Not everyone is so enamoured with the new law. Standing down from his frontbench duties in opposition, Labour peer, Lord Bach, led the charge against the legal aid cuts, slating them for "picking on people who can't defend themselves" and "demeaning our justice system and therefore our country." 
 
Bach's robust stance against the legal aid cuts finds historical support in the words of former Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, who said, "...access to justice is a hallmark of a civilised society."
 
Other opponents are concerned that law centres and Citizens' Advice Bureau - that have historically provided free services - may have to start introducing charges. Experts predict that this will lead to a worrying increase in the number of 'litigants in person', or lay people who represent themselves in court. 
 

Famous 'litigants in person'

Famous examples include Sir Paul McCartney's ex-wife, Heather Mills, and former Scottish Socialist party leader, Tommy Sheridan, who appeared before the courts with poor results. 
 
Mills received under 20 percent of the amount she claimed in her divorce proceedings and Sheridan was imprisoned for three years following a conviction for perjury.
 
The full effect of the legal aid cuts will not be known until next year. Some lawyers may take on more cases on a 'no-win, no-fee' basis while others may have to turn away otherwise viable cases altogether.
 
What is clear is that legal aid is one of the post-war pillars of a reconstructed and fairer state. In order for the principle of access to justice to stand, legal representation must continue to be made available on the basis of need and not the ability to pay.
 
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