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Before 1949, the UK had a piecemeal system of providing assistance to those people who could not afford to access the courts or pay for advice from a lawyer. The Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949 introduced a consistent approach in England and Wales based on a means test. Its overall aim was to make legal aid and advice more readily available for “persons of small or moderate means”.  The Act received royal assent on 30 July 1949.

Since then, there have been many changes to the scope and terms of legal aid, including through five acts of parliament. The most recent was the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which forms the basis of the current system. A review of this Act was published in February 2019 and the provision of legal assistance remains a disputed area of policy.

Separate systems exist for legal aid and advice in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Historically, there have been some links with that of England. For example, the 1949 Act contained provisions so that it could also be applied to Scotland and/or Northern Ireland in respect of legal advice. 

This briefing discusses the provision of legal assistance before 1949. It then outlines the discussions which led to the Act, and its main features. The briefing also summarises how legal aid has changed in the last 70 years. Finally, it provides suggestions for further reading, including on the issues facing the system today.

Documents to download

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