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Pro bono work and social justice
Pro bono work and social justice

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2.2 Civil legal aid

The Citizens Advice website [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] outlines the types of cases which are eligible for civil legal aid. There are also financial conditions for receiving civil legal aid. Where civil legal aid is available there are restrictions on its use; for example, in cases involving welfare benefits legal aid is only available for appeals to the Upper Tribunal, Court of Appeal or Supreme Court. There is no entitlement to legal aid in first-tier welfare tribunals. Members of the public have to represent themselves in first-tier cases. The most vulnerable members of our society are in receipt of welfare benefits and the inability to receive legal aid means they are less likely to challenge decisions of the state.

The impact of the reduction of civil legal aid has led to a rise in litigants in person. In March 2013, the Master of the Rolls issued a Practice Guidance, which stated that the term ‘litigant in person’ was ‘the sole term to be used to describe individuals who exercise their right to conduct legal proceedings on their own behalf’ (Practice Guidance (Terminology for Litigants in Person) [2013] 2 All ER 624, p. 5).

In December 2014, Lord Dyson, Master of the Rolls, said:

It is impossible to prove, but it would be extraordinary, frankly, if there were not some cases that are decided adversely to a litigant in person which would have been decided the other way had that litigant in person been represented by a competent lawyer. It is inevitable.

(House of Commons Justice Committee (2015), para. 137)

The increase in the number of litigants in person appearing in court has impacted on the role of the judge; the judge has a responsibility to ensure all parties receive a fair hearing where one or both are not legally represented. Judges are given guidance on how to achieve that in the Equal Treatment Bench Book 2013 (Judicial College, 2013). Additional guidance is provided in the The Judicial Working Group on Litigants in Person: Report which recommends training for judges on dealing with litigants in person.

Activity 3 The cuts that hurt

Timing: You should allow yourself 30 minutes to do this activity.
  • a.Access the report and read the ‘Executive summary’, pp. 3–5, to find out more about the impact of the civil legal aid cuts.
  • b.Visit the Personal Support Unit website and read the section: ‘Difference we make’ (Personal Support Unit, n.d.)
  • c.Answer the following questions:
  • i.What do you think about the debate on legal aid? Do you think cuts to legal aid are justified?
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  • ii.Are legal aid cuts creating a two-tier justice system?
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  • iii.What are the disadvantages faced by litigants in person?
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  • iv.How do the services of the Personal Support Unit support litigants in person?
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Comment

You may find it interesting to look for recent media stories and news reports discussing the impact of the cuts in legal aid, to see if these reflect the answers you have given.