No justice in the capital?
Thousands of vulnerable Londoners failed by legal aid system
A new (5 March 2019) report by justice charity Revolving Doors Agency estimates that the most vulnerable Londoners were unable to access any legal support for as many as 37,500 legal problems since the introduction of legal aid cuts. The estimate is based on a recent survey of people who come into repeat contact with the criminal justice system, as a result of multiple non-violent offences (such theft or minor drug offences) driven by vulnerabilities such as mental ill health, homelessness and domestic abuse.
The report, written by Ellie De & Burcu Borysik, coincides with the publication of the government’s long-awaited review of the legal aid system which highlights the need for improving support for most vulnerable in society so that the justice system is just, accessible and proportionate.
The charity calls on the government to take into account huge disparities faced by people in the revolving door of crisis and crime in London. The research found that 4 in 5 received no legal support to protect themselves from domestic violence, and over half of people experiencing housing problems including serious disrepair and unlawful eviction had to fend for themselves.
Christina Marriott, Chief Executive of Revolving Doors Agency said:
Our new research shows that the justice system is routinely failing thousands of the most vulnerable Londoners. For example, lack of legal aid to challenge an unfair eviction can lead to homelessness – and we know homelessness can lead people to commit crimes to survive.
“We welcome that the government has recognised that people are no longer certain what legal aid they can receive and are taking action to improve legal education and access to information. But the action plan doesn’t address the underlying issue that lack of legal advice and representation is leaving people in dangerous situations and crises.
The Revolving Doors team conducted a survey with 30 people, based on a list of situations eligible for legal aid. Participants identified a total of 173 civil legal problems in the previous five years, mainly relating to family disputes, especially the care of children and family problems. Survey participants had only sought legal support in 43 of these cases and the rate of accessing legal aid was much lower even than this.
Whilst the vast majority of people who were arrested, charged or questioned by the police sought and received legal support, there were huge disparities in other areas of law:
- 4/5 experiencing domestic vilence did not seek legal support as they found it difficult to provide evidence to demonstrate their victim status.
- 3/5 who wanted to appeal to a benefits decision did not do so, because they felt there was no help available to them.
- Over half did not seek legal advice for housing problems, including cases of serious disrepair and unlawful eviction.
Interviews with people with lived experience highlighted that the cuts in legal aid not only diverted them away from litigation but also from mediation and alternate dispute resolution. Many participants told researchers they came to accept problems such as domestic abuse, homelessness, discrimination as an ‘ordinary experience’ or a ‘part of life’, rather than legal disputes. In fact, none of the participants in this small study were able to identify issues that constitute a legal problem, unless they had been previously advised by friends, family or support workers to seek advice from a solicitor.
The researchers found a heavy reliance on informal information and support networks. In 85% of cases that received legal aid, people in the revolving doors found their legal representative recommendations from friends and family.
This detrimental combination of lack of legal knowledge, social and digital exclusion, rejection for legal support and its contagious deterrent effect were main barriers for people in the revolving door in accessing justice.
Participants also suggested that having to deal with such serious problems without any legal aid, put them not only in significant emotional strain but also greater at risk of offending.
As a result of these experiences, many people in the revolving door feel let down by the legal profession and the justice system more broadly.
Two quotes from people on their experiences of seeking legal advice and legal aid were particularly revealing:
“Poverty accounts for a lot”
“There is no justice in the justice system”
They were left behind in what they describe as a ‘two tier justice system’, after not being able to afford solicitors’ fees when they were faced with the possibility of losing their homes, their children and benefits, and having to represent themselves in a justice system that is not designed with their legal knowledge and understanding in mind.
This briefing shows that that their experiences were, sadly, not unique. Legal aid cuts mean growing numbers of people struggle alone, managing multiple problems such as mental ill health, homelessness, domestic abuse, debt, discrimination, problems with benefits or immigration often simultaneously, navigating a complex justice system they do not understand, feeling ignored and abandoned.