Need a lawyer?
For an increasing number of people embroiled in legal action in the UK the answer may still be yes, but it’s the question that needs updating.
Since drastic Legal Aid cutbacks were implemented in April 2013, more and more people have to ask themselves whether or not they can afford a lawyer. For those who can’t the options and the consequences can be ugly. The impact in England and Wales has been telling. Year on year, the number of people representing themselves in Welsh courtrooms almost doubled between 2012/13 and 2013/14.
Crispin Masterman, a former family judge in South East Wales has recently drawn attention to the damage this can do to the family unit. Mr Masterman and many others in the profession are convinced that removing lawyers from the legal process directly causes delays, and where proceedings concern family law he fears that children often suffer most,
“The damage that’s done is both emotional and probably, in some cases, psychological as well, and the difficulty is that parents don’t see this, they’re so tied up in their own issues that they forget that the child’s welfare is the paramount issue.”
Anticipating this increase in “per se” representation, the Bar Council of England and Wales published a detailed guide for anyone considering this route when the funding cuts were first announced. Well-intentioned as this was, can untrained, unqualified private citizens really be expected to represent themselves adequately in a highly-charged courtroom setting?
The National Justice Committee certainly doesn’t think so. Comprising the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, the Justice Alliance and the Criminal Bar Association, this group has repeatedly voiced its opposition to the cutbacks. Its members believe a fundamental principle – and the concept of social justice in this country – has been compromised.
The legal profession hasn’t always been portrayed flatteringly in the media or in popular culture. For every Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird there are many more John Miltons, portrayed by Al Pacino in The Devils’ Advocate as not only a venal attorney but the devil incarnate. Many people question the motives and even the necessity of lawyers. Professionals on both sides of the Atlantic would no doubt prefer to identify with the slogan of the 1996 American Bar Association’s national convention:
“Freedom, Justice, Liberty — without lawyers they’re just words.”
Language service providers can easily identify with the lawyers they support. Where Google offers a cheap substitute for professional translation, self-representation is the budget alternative to skilled professional advocacy. In both examples, important details will be lost along the way. We sympathise with those who have no alternative to self-representation and we applaud the lawyers who continue to stand up for their rights, but the message is clear. Professionals get the job done. Just as language issues need to be resolved by a professional translator, the courtroom is an arena for the lawyer.