The government plans to slash the legal aid budget by £350m, yet legal aid will remain in almost all criminal cases or cases that involve…
The government plans to slash the legal aid budget by £350m, yet legal aid will remain in almost all criminal cases or cases that involve areas which are protected by law such as domestic violence, forced marriage or child abduction. The current budget for legal aid in the United Kingdom stands at £2bn, which is a higher per capita expenditure on legal aid than any other country. Despite this large spend, only 29 percent of British citizens are currently eligible for legal aid and after the cuts that amount is likely to drop. Cutting the budget for legal aid is probably a good thing since it will force would-be litigants to pursue cheaper alternatives to the Court.
The problem is not the amount of money assigned to the legal aid budget, or the government’s attempt to cut it. Our problem, as a nation, is the vast amount of criminal offences and convictions which are a result of our increasing habit of taking legal action when confronted with civil problems. With both the political left and right wanting to be “tough on crime”, the amount of criminal offences has risen swiftly in recent years – the Labour government introduced more than 3,000. The people who typically commit these offences disproportionately fall into the eligible 29 percent. We also have developed a habit of seeking legal action rather than mediation. So when a neighbour’s tree grows over our fence we are more likely to take them to court to defend “our rights” than to attempt to negotiate and understand one another. There are moments when judicial intervention is the right option, but it should only ever be a last resort after exhausting all other possible avenues for resolution.
What needs to increase is the amount of education and advice given to those seeking to resolve their problems in court. Currently the Citizens’ Advice Bureau provides this function and eats up most of the annual £2bn. In Scotland, a scheme is planned whereby law students (the second most common type of student, after nurses) would give free advice over the phone in exchange for some excellent real life experience of law in action. Introducing a similar scheme over the rest of the UK would provide a useful cost-saving measure to prevent some of the damage from the cuts and at least allow the newly disqualified to seek free advice before potentially wasting their money. However, this cannot replace what is really needed; a way of encouraging people to negotiate, see the other person’s side of an argument, or accept that sometimes, accidents do happen.
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