One Barnet and a High Court challenge funded by legal aid: what’s it all about?

Maria Nash outside the High Court to challenge One Barnet. Picture: Polly Hancock.

Maria Nash outside the High Court to challenge One Barnet. Picture: Polly Hancock. - Credit: Archant

When the Barnet Times Series newspaper published a story online about disabled pensioner Maria Nash’s successful bid for legal aid to appeal the verdict of a judicial review into the council’s One Barnet outsourcing scheme, it caused quite a stir.

Quickly after the story’s publication, many from Barnet’s fervent online community took to Twitter to vent their frustration at the story’s headline.

It announced the news that Ms Nash, 68, had been “handed more taxpayer funding” to continue her High Court battle against One Barnet, which claims the council acted illegally in failing to consult residents on the plans.

Theresa Musgrove, better known under her pseudonym as well-known Barnet blogger Mrs Angry, was one of many tweeters.

“It implied that Maria Nash was taking something she wasn’t entitled to,” said Ms Musgrove. “Whereas the council itself wastes millions of pounds without challenge from the local press.”

Quite whether the Times was making any judgement on Ms Nash’s right to legal aid is beside the point, Ms Musgrove’s contention raises a serious debate about the importance of legal aid – critically, at a time when its future looks to be under threat.

Last week, the Ham&High published a story detailing widespread local opposition to government plans to cut legal aid in an attempt to save £220million.

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Leading this opposition is Matt Foot, a Bounds Green solicitor, who played a key part in getting wrongly convicted Hackney teenager Sam Hallam freed from prison after seven years of incarceration. He said: “Legal aid is absolutely vital. If we are going back to pre-1949 – before the Legal Aid Act – which we are with these government changes, the rich will be able to afford quality representation and the poor will be left with very basic representation.

“It is an essential part of a democratic society, it means authorities can’t act with impunity. It’s about authorities – such as police or local councils – being held to account and trying to make sure that people have proper representation and justice.”

But just who is entitled to legal aid and how can it be obtained? In principle, anyone who finds themselves having to go to court – criminal or civil – and cannot afford the cost of legal advice, mediation or representation in court could be entitled.

In the case of Ms Nash, a wheelchair-bound pensioner who relies on Barnet Council for a number of vital services, legal aid for both her original judicial review application and the subsequent appeal was deemed justified.

After the original High Court judgement, Barnet Council leader, Cllr Richard Cornelius, warned Ms Nash to “consider carefully” the prospect of an appeal which would incur “even more costs” for the taxpayer to settle.

It is a position he retains today, explaining: “Legal aid is an important legal right but with rights come responsibilities – at what point does an exception to a point of law change into a contention of political process? A million quid a month for the taxpayer, plus legal costs – it’s a lot of money.”