Opinion: Matthew Sidebottom on what the Legal Aid cuts will mean for Peterborough

Litigation lawyer Matthew Sidebottom gives his view on Lord Neuberger’s comments,  cuts to Legal Aid and what this means for the justice system in Peterborough.                                 Matthew Sidebottom

Lord Neuberger’s comments on the impending austerity cuts to legal aid have been much talked about recently.  Lord Neuberger, Britain’s most senior judge argued that “the quality of justice will be in danger of being devalued” as a result of the changes.

In making the cuts to legal aid the government have asserted that an individual’s right to justice is accessible merely through the courts. Those who cannot afford private representation will be still able to represent themselves in court but they will no longer have the benefit of a lawyer’s in depth understanding of the issues. The continuing advice, both legal and practical, provided by lawyers throughout the process is something that many will now be denied.

Going through the court process can be extremely daunting.  There is a danger that many will be inadvertently denied justice because they are overwhelmed and intimidated by the court process.

Lord Neuberger said that the obvious increase in the number of parties representing themselves in court will impact on the courts themselves.  “Either there’s a real risk the court system will become less efficient, while other litigants will have to wait longer, or it’s going to costs more, in which case the savings on legal aid may be dissipated to some extent by the increased costs of running the courts”.

And it is smaller, local courts that are likely to feel the biggest impact of the increased expense of accommodating litigants in person.  Regional courts such as Peterborough do not have the flexibility in terms of judge’s availability and court time of the larger courts. It is those who reside within the jurisdiction of smaller courts like ours whose right to justice will be greater impacted by the cuts.

In recent years the courts have put pressure on lawyers to encourage mediation and other means of alternative dispute resolution. The cuts to Legal Aid are contradictory to this ethos as those unable to afford legal representation will no longer have any choice but to take a matter straight to court and represent themselves, potentially ‘wasting’ the court’s time and resources on matters that could have been otherwise resolved had lawyers been able to advise and assist the parties.

The cuts will also bring an increased workload to publicly funded advice centres such as the Citizens Advice Bureau and Community Legal Advice who already struggle to accommodate the vast number of vulnerable individuals unable to access legal advice by other means.

The consensus amongst lawyers is that these comments from Lord Neuberger are too little too late. Made only a few weeks ahead of the changes coming into effect, many wonder why the judge has taken until now to express these concerns.  His comments come when it is far too late for the government to reverse any changes soon to be implemented.