Helping ensure access to justice for everyone, one step at a time
Last week almost 100 members of the legal community in Chichester took part in a sponsored walk around the city to raise money for the area’s free-advice agencies. Many local lawyers volunteer regularly to assist them – for my part I cannot praise highly enough the valuable work carried out by our local Citizens Advice bureau.
Access to justice for everyone regardless of their financial situation is a principle that has for years been a cornerstone of our legal justice system. Sadly, however, these days it is not always the norm.
On Tuesday 11 September, Harriet Harman MP spoke to an all-parliamentary group on legal aid and outlined the impact of legal aid cuts on enforcing human rights. In 1979, 77 per cent of the population was eligible for civil legal aid; that figure has now dropped to 25 per cent. This stark statistic shows how many people in our community now have no possibility of help with legal fees and rely instead on local free-advice agencies.
At inquests and public enquiries I often see those who have lost their loved ones having to cope unrepresented, in contrast to a person or organisation that may have had a part in causing their loved one’s death being represented by top barristers. Mrs Harman talked about the importance of ensuring equality of arms, offering the example of the inquest into the 2009 fire at Lakanal House in the London borough of Southwark. She said that the people who had been in the neighbouring block, who had to watch their neighbours’ children in body bags and put their own children to bed every night in an identical block, had no legal aid so no financial support for legal representation. They sat in the coroner’s inquest and heard safety issues talked about, but had no voice.
That may be an extreme example, but it shows how legal advice could have made a huge difference to those affected – debt, homelessness or employment issues are other situations in which people so often struggle alone.
If you are in need and do not know which way to turn, do not forget about your local branch of Citizens Advice and, if you are able to support their valuable work, please do what you can.
Claire Watson. Partner & Head of Personal InjuryGeneral, George Ide, News