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70th Anniversary of Legal Aid

70 years ago today saw introduction of civil legal aid and the extension of criminal legal aid, when the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949 obtained Royal Assent. Legal aid was introduced at a time of real austerity as Britain recovered from the cost of the World War 2.

The Justice Alliance organised a celebration in Parliament last week and have marked the occasion with a pamphlet: Legal Aid Matters, containing 70 cases, one for each of the 70 years. These were the legal world’s equivalent of folk tales, suggested Simon Mullings, before inviting us to imagine a world where the cases had not been brought, where the development of law depended only on those with money.

Richard Burgon MP rightly described legal aid lawyers as unsung heroes.
It was also noted at the meeting that this pillar of the welfare state was, in financial terms very small; about 3 days of NHS funding. A recent study by TheCityUK, found that legal and accountancy firms contributed enough to the exchequer last year to fund the legal aid budget 11 times over.

The celebrations were however tempered. Only a few days before saw the devastating closure of Lambeth Law Centre. Research by the Law Society reveals that half of all local authority areas have no housing legal aid provision. And Marcia Rigg powerfully set out the case for legal aid at inquests where people die in custody, nothing that the state in multiple guises is represented on unlimited funds.

Looking back on the chosen cases, it in instructive to read Hanning v Maitland (No 2) [1970 QB 580] (chosen by Lord Bach) in which the Court of Appeal allowed an appeal against the refusal of legal aid in a negligence claim, where the costs of defending would have deprived the defendant of one eighth of his savings. Today the means test is so low that the BPP Legal Advice Clinic is having to assist a student with mental health problems facing eviction, as her student loan puts her beyond financial eligibility.

Johnathan Black pointed out that, in contrast to the 70th anniversary of the NHS, the Government, the Legal Aid Agency and the Ministry of Justice all seem in intent on ignoring this anniversary.

Overall, however, the mood was upbeat, with Kaweh Beheshtizadeh giving an inspiring account of how being represented by a legal aid lawyer in his asylum claim inspired him to become a legal aid solicitor, providing immigration advice and noting the impact on those denied legal aid in such cases.