Legal Aid: an unintended consequence? A guest blog.

December 8, 2014 8:05 am

Recently, outside Victoria Station in Manchester I failed to dodge two smartly dressed young men trying to hand out leaflets to indifferent or hostile passers by. On looking at the leaflet, they weren’t evangelising for any sect but calling upon people to defend Legal Aid.

It’s unlikely to bring too many to the barricades. Legal Aid is one of those things that people think is for other people. What you never used you’ll never miss. But like so many other things we once took for granted, its ebbing away subtly erodes society in a way that harms us all.

Recently I acted for a council that gave notice to a grandmother caring for children that she no longer complied with fostering regulations and planned to remove them. The parents took the only step open to them and applied to discharge the care proceedings. For these complex proceedings none of these parties, despite considerable conflicts between them which a lawyer could have pointed out, were entitled to legal aid. If they were unsuccessful, their children would be brought up by strangers. The Children’s Guardian was represented but their view was different again. These parents were better equipped than most, intellectually, to participate. I had no sympathy with their case. But trying to walk a mile in their shoes was uncomfortable. The Judge and the represented parties talked in a language and used concepts that were completely foreign to them. Of necessity they talked, and made arrangements, over their head. They made light of things they thought were important and gave weight to things they didn’t. They were restricted in their cross examination. They watched in impotent rage as their children seeped away from their birth family.

I’ve no doubt the result was correct.

From the point of view of the Court they wasted time with unnecessary hearings which went on and on while it tried to give shape to their case. From the point of view of the Local Authority it ended up expending far more energy than it should have had to, its all too scarce resources dissipated on tasks that shouldn’t have been theirs.

And for society? More voices weren’t heard properly, the system was discredited further, and when the children grow up, they won’t be able to say their patents had a truly fair chance. And the rest of us? Well the civilised world we had become used to, and the principles of fairness were chipped away at just a bit more.

About Graeme Kenna

Graeme has been a solicitor since 1986 and worked in the law since the age of 17. He worked in criminal law until 1998 then moved sideways into child, and in particular, adult protection and education law. The theme throughout Graeme’s career has been to try to give a voice to those who may not otherwise be heard. Graeme says “I believe a society is to be judged not on how it rewards the most successful citizens but on how it treats its’ most vulnerable members. I am fascinated by the borders between protecting the less able and ensuring that their autonomy and human rights are respected. Avoidable tragedies occur because people fail to understand the significance of what they observe or know what they should do with their information.”

Graeme was the legal representative on the joint health and L.A. consultation and response to the cross-authority Mental Capacity Act Forum, the AMPH forum, and currently the legal advisor to the Calderdale BIA forum.

Graeme works with Kate in providing training to Local Authorities and public authorities.