The Civil Justice Council's 2011 report 'Access to Justice for Litigants in Person (or Self-Representing Litigants)' states that access to justice is central to the rule of law. It then opines that the proposed reduction in publicly funded legal aid, and cost of privately-paid legal services, are likely to lead to a substantial increase in those whose access to justice is unaided by lawyers. The result, they say: "will be no access to justice for some, and compromised access to justice for others."
However for those who have lost the ability to claim Legal Aid, it is not as simple as just losing the chance of being supported through a complex system by having a lawyer paid for to support you. As with many other of the current government's policies, it becomes more pernicious when viewed 'in the round'. In addition to cuts to the Legal Aid budget, the Courts and Tribunals service has also been hit. In the Cardiff Civil Justice Centre, for example, there is one public counter which is open between 10am and 2pm. This time last year, there were two public counters open between 10am and 4pm. This 66% reduction is in mirrors a trend which is apparent throughout England and Wales.
Interestingly, the Law Gazette reported that this reduction in face-to-face contact between court staff and the general public could impact negatively on the efficiency of the legal system, as District Judges ended up doing the work that was previously picked up by court staff. The Conservative-led government will argue that this won't happen, as the 'Big Society' is going to pick up where the state left off. There are indeed some organisations which assist individuals who are all-at-sea in the legal system. In Cardiff, these organisations include the excellent Riverside Advice Centre and Cardiff Law Centre. However, given that there are financial pressures on all Local Authorities, as a result of increasingly stringent financial settlements from central government, Councils are also cutting funding. Both the Riverside Advice Centre and Cardiff Law Centre have had a reduction in funding from Cardiff Council for 2013/14, and it is highly unlikely that this will be a one-off. Furthermore, the Cardiff office of the Citizens Advice Bureau has closed, citing a lack of resources as the main reason.
There is a possible partial solution to this problem, though. It is born out of the boom in law students within the UK - all seeking to find the 'je ne sais quoi' with which to discriminate themselves from their peers. That, along with the tradition of 'pro bono' activity which exists within the legal profession, could provide something of a sticking plaster for this open wound. For example the Personal Support Unit (a charity offering non-legal support to those in the Civil Justice system, which has gone from strength to strength in recent years) could enter into a joint working arrangement with the Bar Pro Bono Unit in order to provide a free regional support network for those otherwise disenfranchised from the legal system. The PSU has a regional network, but is not able to provide legal advice. The BPBU can give legal advice and representation in court, but is London-centric. Therefore, a joint venture may work well - with recently qualified lawyers volunteering in cities such as Cardiff, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool alongside the more procedurally-focused PSU.
It's not a perfect solution - far from it - but to do nothing would be to deny access to justice for all. To deny access to justice for all is to undermine the domestic rule of law.