Legal aid: where did it start?
As a female solicitor who has specialised in publicly funded legal aid family work throughout her career, one of the interesting facts I learned is how legal aid came to be.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, those who would otherwise be unable to afford legal advice through a solicitor or barrister could obtain free legal advice through the ‘poor man’s lawyer’ service.
It was not until the Legal Aid Act 1949 that legal aid became available in civil cases. Prior to that date, the majority of the population had no option but to rely on pro bono services for advice and representation.
The ‘poor man’s lawyer’ became a generic name used to describe free legal services for people who couldn’t afford to pay for them, often run by women.
For over 50 years, despite inadequate geographical coverage and limited resources, the ‘poor man’s lawyer’ services remained the only source of legal advice for many people. The Legal Aid Agency as we now know the previous Legal Aid Board and Legal Services Commission to be now known provides legal aid for those who are eligible.
In 2013 the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) brought about significant changes to civil legal aid, with a scheme that allows for representation of only the very poorest in society and for very restrictive categories of cases with restrictive gateway evidence.
Legal aid is still available, but LASPO created significant challenges and continues to threaten access to justice and the rule of law. From spending high in the 1980s spending on legal aid has been cut repeatedly by successive governments in recent years. From my experience in trying to support those who are attempting to access public funding it can be argued that the cuts are particularly detrimental for women.