Access to justice is a fundamental democratic right which we should all cherish. The severe levels of underfunding plaguing our justice system, however, are putting this core value to the test. The chaos inflicted on our justice system does not end in the courtroom and its repercussions should be a serious cause of concern to all.
Cambridge Universities Labour Club’s (CULC) Justice Campaign was unanimously approved at our Termly General Meeting in November 2018. To develop this campaign further, members of CULC are now taking the necessary steps to educate themselves on the impacts of the cuts to the justice system and, in particular, cuts to legal aid.
The first step we have taken to build this campaign was to visit Anglia Ruskin University’s (ARU) Law Clinic to learn more about why this was set up, how much it has already achieved and what actions it would expect the Government to take to improve citizen’s access to the law.
ARU’s Law Clinic offers free, independent and confidential legal advice to people dealing with family law matters in Cambridge, Chelmsford and surrounding areas. The clinic has been up and running for less than a year and has already given advice to over 300 clients, emphasizing that the increasing cutbacks in public funding for legal aid are causing a serious demand for legal advice. The clinic works collaboratively with local professionals, advice agencies and law students to plug the greatly needed gap of legal support. We all need access to the justice system and even if most of us, as students, may have been fortunate enough to not need to end up in a court hearing, it is undeniable the fact that a fair society with liberties for all must be governed by the rule of law. CULC believes that this is under serious risk as a result of cuts to legal aid and that is why we are passionate about campaigning on this issue this term.
CULC’s visit to ARU’s Law Clinic highlighted in particular the gravity of family law and how severe the cuts to legal aid are in this area. Family law can include divorce, child custody and visitation rights, child support payments, and spousal support. Family law often involves complex issues of domestic violence and child protection and so are cases where people are desperate for support, something which the Law Clinic has been successfully providing, even if recognising the number of people who are still in need to advice and support.
The Law Clinic offers free advice, help with filling in forms and have a dedicated team in the court ready to offer advice to those shut out of the justice system because they cannot afford it. The work of volunteer students in the clinic is supported by lawyers from private firms, ensuring that all advice given out is approved by certified lawyers.
Beyond the issue of affordability, our visit to the Law Clinic also demonstrated that access to the justice system is often restricted by knowledge factors which the clinic also aims to address via outreach work with local organisations like Women’s Aid, Citizens Advice Bureau and more.
Our justice system is underfunded and spending on legal aid has shrunk by more than £1bn in five years. The consequences of this are clear, especially with regards to family law as defendants are walking into courts without legal advice and fair representation, a basic cornerstone of the rule of law.
CULC believes that there needs to be an urgent move towards reinstating the half hour free legal advice which existed before the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo) came into effect introducing funding cuts to legal aid.
Legal aid was introduced in 1949 by the postwar Labour government but has been cut by £450m a year since by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition.
Not only do the high costs of legal aid fees act as a key barrier to justice but they have also been leading people into debt and anxiety and have had a negative impact on children’s lives.
CULC is happy to see the work of organisations like ARU Law Clinic plugging the gap but call on the Government to reinstate funding for legal aid urgently.
If you wish to learn more about the Law Clinic or know someone who would benefit from the advice, you can learn more about them here: https://www.anglia.ac.uk/business-and-law/economics-finance-and-law/law-clinic
CULC will be running a series of events and campaign days on the Justice System this term and we hope to have the support of students. If you are interested in getting involved keep an eye on our page for opportunities or get in touch directly.