15th June 2015 is the 800th anniversary of one of the most significant and eldest human rights charters in the world. The Magna Carta, which translates to ‘The Great Charter’, became the cornerstone for Britain’s uncodified constitution and one of the most recognised documents worldwide. Despite being created as a peace agreement between King John II and the barons in 1215, it set out key rights and principles to which all ‘free men’ could expect. It failed as a peace agreement, but it set the foundations for a new concept that everyone, including the King, is subject to the law and they had to respect and abide by the principles set out in its 63 clauses. Only three of which remain in force. Clauses 39 and 40 are the most significant today and they state that:
"No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.[…]To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”
The Magna Carta clearly states a right to a fair trial, arguably by jury, and financial wealth, whether strong or poor, has no bearing on this principle. It is unfortunate that justice through the courts does come at a cost. The state should, however, help those who cannot afford this justice to access it by easing the financial burden. This was achieved, at least to some degree, by legal aid.
The heavy cuts imposed by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which came into force from April 2013, takes away that vital support. The cuts to legal aid have had a profound effect on legal practice in England and Wales. Legal aid is an essential pillar of democratic society and important part of the welfare state as it helps ordinary people, who may not be able to afford a solicitor or barrister, to access justice. Very often the most vulnerable people find themselves in situations that reach a point where only the intervention of a lawyer or specialist caseworker can resolve the problems. A 68% in legal aid each year means that those in welfare benefit and family disputes, people in need of help sorting debt demands and individuals who have housing problems cannot get the legal help that they need. This causes the power divide between the poor and rich becomes wider, more prominent and has greater significance. These cuts do not allow some people to receive “lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land” due to a lack of funding. Rights and justice can, as a result, be delayed or denied because of a lack of funding. This allows justice to be bought and sold.
Justice is not a concept that should be bought or sold. It is an objective ideology that allows for the fair outcome. We find ourselves on a five-year path of austerity and cuts will continue. It is possible that we are witnessing legal aid’s slow death, new limitations on the right to a fair trial and a clear swift in power towards those with greater financial resources. But the fight must continue. Have your voices heard, fundraise for free legal advice, go on legal walks, go on the marches. We must protect access to justice so that it can last another 800 years.