England and Wales pride itself in it’s legal system. Do you think this is reflected in government resourcing?
The legal system of England and Wales has a long and proud tradition, with the country taking significant pride in it, and in the justice that can be provided within the courts of England and Wales to all as a result of legal aid, which ensures that even those of the poorest means can afford access to justice and to legal representation. However, in recent years, and in particular since the financial crisis of 2008 onwards, successive governments have pursued a policy of “austerity”, which has sought to significantly reduce government spending. It has therefore been suggested that the level of pride in the legal system in England and Wales has not been reflected in the resourcing of this sector by the government, and this essay will assess the extent to which this is true.
Austerity Measures and their Impact on the Administration of Justice in England and Wales.
Following the financial crisis of 2008 onwards, the UK government undertook a programme of austerity funding, in which significant cuts to the government spending budget and borrowing were undertaken in an attempt to reduce the fiscal deficit and to repair the public finances. Regardless of the economic arguments in favour of or against such policies, it is argued that the cuts (which affected the legal sector in addition to any other areas of public life), have had a significant detrimental impact on the administration of justice in the United Kingdom.
The administration of justice in England and Wales is no doubt a costly exercise. The courts and all court staff, including the judges are publicly funded. In addition to this, however, the state is also required to bear the cost of legal aid. Even since the Legal Aid and Legal Advice Act 1949, those who were unable to afford the cost of legal representation have been able to have it supplied to them by the state instead. The provision of legal aid has come to be regarded as an essential social objective, as it ensures that justice is done by enabling those with legal rights to pursue these in the courts. Furthermore, ensuring access to justice for all is argued to ensure that the rule of law itself is upheld, as those engaging with the poorest in society are required to obey the law as a result. The long-standing right for individuals to access legal aid in England and Wales has therefore been seen as a significant point of pride for the English legal system itself.
However, austerity policies have significantly impacted the legal sector in recent years. Indeed, out of all the public sectors, the cuts to the Ministry of Justices’ budget in the period between 2010-11 and 2019 have been greater than any other sector, with reductions in funding of over 40% in this period. As is noted by the Financial Times, the Ministry of Justice in 2010 controlled a budget of £10.9 billion, and in 2019, this is reduced to just £6.38 billion. This has been accomplished primarily by a reduction in the availability of legal aid. The Legal Aid, Sentencing, and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) significantly reduced the availability of legal aid for many. Indeed, entire sectors of law were excluded from the availability of legal aid altogether, including family law, welfare, housing law, and debt claims. This has threatened the access to justice for many, and has also hindered those most in need of legal aid to enforce their rights as these areas generally involve the poorest in society and the protection of their legal rights. Some have argued that this has caused the legal system itself to descend into crisis, and that it has damaged the social fabric of society as those engaged in disputes with poor individuals in areas with no legal aid funding available are no longer in fear of the other party pursuing them in the courts for breach of their legal rights. This has undermined the rule of law itself, as any rule of law is dependent on the enforcement of the courts to ensure that legal obligations are properly carried out.
As a result of the reductions in government funding, it is arguable that legal system itself is in crisis. The level of pride previously seen in the English legal system has been significantly undermined by government defunding of this area, and that the level of pride seen in the system is in no way reflected by the government funding of the legal system.