The Welsh Government’s Counsel General has called on the UK Government to back reforms to legal aid to ensure people can access to the support they need.
Mick Antoniw said budget cuts over the last decade have risked creating one law for the rich and another for the poor.
The Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid, chaired by Sir Christopher Bellamy QC, made a central recommendation that at least £135m additional funding is needed each year to ensure the criminal legal profession is adequately resourced.
The review estimated that around 56% of arrested suspects requested free legal advice, and expressed concern the take up of legal advice is not higher.
Citing the examples of post office managers wrongly convicted in the Post Office Horizon scandal, and the lack of legal aid for the families of victims of the Hillsborough disaster, the Counsel General said in the Senedd: “Individuals facing criminal prosecution, and imprisonment, fear that the financial costs of defending themselves could bankrupt them even if they are successful.
This means that the only option they may rationally choose is to plead guilty to an offence they have not committed, so that their home and other assets are protected for their family’s benefit.”
“We fully agree with the review’s central recommendation that at least £135 million additional funding is needed each year just to support criminal legal aid. We contend that civil legal aid is similarly inadequately funded.
It is imperative the UK Government brings forward the radical reforms needed to ensure the equality of access to justice. Viscount Simon said in 1948 that “It is an incorrect slander to say there is one law for the rich and another for the poor”, yet this is where we are and this is what we must change.”
Jane Hutt, Minister for Social Justice, said: “Access to justice – the right to advice, representation, and support – is a fundamental human right. At its core, effective legal aid is about empowering people and ensuring we all have genuine rights in society. This is not only a legal matter but one of social justice, and the case for reform is clear.”
The Commission on Justice in Wales published a report in 2019 finding total legal aid spending in England and Wales fell by 29% in real terms between 2011-12 and 2018-19. It also found that the £36million spent on legal aid in Wales in 2018-19 equated to £11.50 per head of population, with the equivalent figure in England being £15 per head.
Despite justice not being devolved, and despite not being resourced to help those struggling to access Legal Aid, the Welsh Government has taken steps to provide people with support.
In this financial year more than £10m funding has been made available to Single Advice Fund services in Wales, helping people resolve multiple and often entrenched social welfare problems. This includes representation before courts and tribunals.
In the last financial year, Single Advice Fund services in Wales helped 127,813 people deal with 286,666 social welfare problems.
Julie James added: “Legal Aid is a vital lifeline for those who otherwise be unable to get any legal advice. No-one should have to choose between justice and the safety of their family in a modern democracy. The state of legal aid after initial cuts to the system in 2012 is deplorable, and helps solidify the view that there is one rule for the rich in this country and quite another for the poor. I want to join my Labour colleagues in calling the UK government to increase the funding for legal aid and reform the system so that everyone can have the access to justice that is their fundamental right”