by Nina White
Have you ever considered what it would be like or what would happen if you found yourself in a situation where you needed legal representation?
This could be through a dispute with a neighbour, your employer or in a criminal case. In the past, though this itself would be stressful enough, at least you could be sure of being able to have legal representation. Previously, the general position was that everybody, regardless of their financial circumstance, should have the right to legal representation. This is where legal aid came in. However, since 2012, with the implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo), that right can no longer be guaranteed. This has led to law centres across the country closing down, meaning that people in certain areas of the country have not been able to access legal aid at all. This should concern everyone who cares a jot about justice. If you need legal aid but cannot afford it, your only option would be to represent yourself in court, left alone, without specialist knowledge – surely this is unjust?
This law had been heavily criticised by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and NGOs such as Amnesty International, who have described it as ‘a two-tier legal system, open to those that could afford it but closed to those who could not pay’. It is true that a number of charities exist which provide support to those in need of legal aid, such as the Personal Support Unit and the Free Representation Unit – which often consist of law students volunteering their time. But should people have to rely on charity when justice is a fundamental right?
Article 6 (Right to Fair Trial) of the European Convention of Human Rights states that a person has the right ‘to defend himself in person or through legal assistance of his own choosing or, if he has not sufficient means to pay for legal assistance, to be given it free when the interests of justice so require’. With that in mind, how can it be right that these severe cuts to legal aid are denying people their right to access justice?
Undoubtedly, the legal system is a complex system to navigate. Legal jargon almost acts as a form of gatekeeping and ordinary people may find it difficult to explain complex legal arguments. In my view, law should be taught in secondary schools. The legal concept ‘ignorantia juris non excusat’ , which most people would not be aware of, outlines that ignorance of a certain law does not excuse you from being prosecuted under that law.
As well as being better informed of our legal rights and obligations through education, it should never be the case that justice is only for those who can afford it.