A statue of justice in Hamburg. A figure sits in an alcove, holding a set of discoloured copper and brass scales in her left hand, and her right hand resting on a sword. She looks towards the scales. She is flanked by two columns and the top branches of a green tree make up the foreground

Legal Aid Wins in the UK Courts, or: why we should pay to defend criminals?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

By Tom Sparks

Just Access

Why should we pay to defend criminals?

It’s a beguiling argument that populists all over the world have used to gut legal aid budgets.  On its face, the argument seems straightforward enough.  The police do their job with professionalism and skill.  They investigate crimes, and they wouldn’t bring charges against someone unless they were confident that they had got the right person.  After all, they want to see justice done.  And you do trust the police, don’t you.  Well, don’t you?

Of course you do, or so you’re told.  Supporting the police is patriotic.  Pointing out that, like all
of us, they might occasionally make mistakes tends to fall on deaf ears, and from there the conversation usually deteriorates into a game of populist bingo.  Stand there for long enough, and you’ll likely be treated to such trite truisms as ‘the innocent have nothing to fear’, ‘there’s no smoke without fire’, ‘(s)he’s got to be guilty of something’, and perhaps even, ‘well, if you don’t like it here why don’t you just leave’.

For the last decade, such arguments seem to have held the political upper hand, and have formed part of a pattern of making criminal justice systems more punitive, less accessible, and less transparent.  They have also, in far too many cases, tended to make criminal justice systems less fair, less effective, and less functional – and in few places more so than in the UK.

In the UK, rates of legal aid have remained largely stable year-on-year, or in some year have even been cut, since 1998.  This means that even as inflation, costs, and prices rose, lawyers working on legal aid cases have seen their income fall in real terms.  By 2022, when the decision came up for review, the Law Society of England and Wales, the body which regulates and represents solicitors, reported that more than 1.400 solicitors had been forced to stop providing legal aid services because they could not afford to – the payments were no longer keeping up with their costs.  This in turn was leading to legal aid ‘deserts’ in some parts of the country, the Law Society warned; areas in which no lawyers could be found who would take legal aid cases.

There can be no justice where some members of society are priced out of the courts.

Legal aid is the money the Government will pay to a lawyer for representing the interests of someone who cannot pay for representation themselves.  It’s a vital component of a well-functioning justice system, and is widely associated with fairer proceedings and better-quality outcomes.  That doesn’t simply mean that more people are found innocent; it means that outcomes are generally better:  as has been recognised in different jurisdictions (e.g. here and here), with legal aid, innocent accused can better defend themselves; with proper advice, those who are guilty can ensure that their interests are properly represented, with any mitigating factors taken into account. 

The rights of accused persons to representation is recognised in the ICCPR (the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) which states at Article 14(3)(d) that the right of an individual ‘to defend [themselves] through legal assistance of [their] own choosing … and to have legal assistance assigned to [them], in any case where the interests of justice so require, and without payment by him in any such case if he does not have sufficient means to pay for it’.  Article 6(3)(c) of the ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights) recognises the identical principle.

And it goes far beyond criminal law:  with legal aid, people who need to can ensure respect for their rights across the whole range of modern life, including in areas such as housing disputes, immigration matters, medical negligence, and even abusive relationships.  Here, too, legal aid is often an essential component of human rights:  the ECHR proclaims, at Article 13, the ‘right to an effective remedy’:  ‘Everyone whose rights and freedoms … are violates shall have an effective remedy before a national authority’.

A man in a blue shirt sits at a dark wood desk. Only his waist to his chest and his hands are visible. He is holding a black ballpoint pen with gold details, and is writing on papers on the desk top.

In the UK, the courts have struck a blow for legal aid (in criminal cases), in what may be the first step in reversing the degradation of the legal aid system.  In a case brought by the Law Society, the High Court of England and Wales has ruled that the Lord Chancellor’s decision not to increase legal aid funding, even after the dire state of the system was brought to his attention, fell below the required standard for a decision-maker.  The Law Society, the Court said in its judgment, had brought forward ‘compelling’ evidence that ‘the system depends to an unacceptable degree on the goodwill and generosity of spirit of those currently working in it … Unless there are significant injections of funding in the relatively near future … the system will arrive in due course at a point of collapse’.

The Law Society has won a significant victory for Access to Justice in the UK, but this is only the first
step.  The UK Government must now implement the decision and restore legal aid, and governments around the world must follow suit.

Why should we pay to defend criminals?  One answer is to point out that we pay to defend people accused, some of whom will be guilty and some innocent.  But there’s also a more fundamental answer.  Even if we imagine that everyone in receipt of legal aid is guilty, the answer would still be clear for everyone who believes in human rights, the rule of law, and fairness in our courts:  access to justice is
essential.  There can be no justice where some members of society are priced out of the courts.  And if we value the rule of law and human rights, we should be prepared to put our money where our mouths are.

Just Access joins the Law Society in calling on the present Lord Chancellor, Alex Chalk, to revitalise legal aid in the UK.  Legal aid is a vital component of Access to Justice and is necessary to ensure respect for
individuals’ human rights – both in and beyond criminal law. 

Read and share Just Access’ statement here.

Tom Sparks is Director of Just Access

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related posts


You may republish this article online or in print under our Creative Commons license. You may not edit or shorten the text, you must attribute the article to Just Access and you must include the author’s name in your republication.

If you have any questions, please email

Legal Aid Wins in the UK Courts, or: why we should pay to defend criminals?