So this is British justice: Boris Johnson gets legal aid and a mother of three on the breadline doesn’t

<span>Photograph: Anthony Brown/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Anthony Brown/Alamy

Boris Johnson is a very rich man, even though he suffers from a self-pitying syndrome that afflicts many of the well-off: believing himself to be poorer than he actually is. Although he once described his £250,000-a-year newspaper column salary as “chicken feed”, and reportedly complained that his prime ministerial annual pay packet of more than £150,000 wasn’t enough to live on, he was already in the top 1% of earners when he lived in No 10.

And he has only prospered since, having moved into a £3.8m Oxfordshire mansion –with nine bedrooms and a moat on three sides – and earned well over £5 million since resigning from the prime ministerial office in disgrace.

Yet this enormously wealthy man, who as prime minister presided over the illegality that saw government officials partying while ordinary citizens could not hold the hand of a dying relative – while also being fined himself for violating the rules – somehow benefits from a taxpayer-funded legal defence in the Partygate inquiry, already to the tune of a quarter of a million pounds.

Now consider the difference between Boris Johnson and a woman I spoke with recently, who, for the sake of her anonymity, I’ll call Sally. Sally is a single mother of three children who was paid a modest salary as a health professional. Although she can only give limited details, she was dragged through the court by an abusive, controlling former partner. She has spent about £40,000 on legal fees, was driven into so much debt that she had to sell her house and was forced to use food banks to feed her children.

Criminal barristers protest for a rise in legal aid fees outside the supreme court, 6 September 2022.
Criminal barristers protest for a rise in legal aid fees outside the supreme court, 6 September 2022. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

But here’s the kicker. “I wasn’t entitled to legal aid as I had too much equity in my family home,” she tells me. So there she is, on universal credit, languishing on the breadline, having been taken to court multiple times and left too ill to work by the trauma of it all. “Boris Johnson and his millionaire friends have their legal bills paid when they are rich … it’s another injustice in an already unjust, broken system,” she said.

“In England, justice is open to all – like the Ritz Hotel!” quipped the Irish judge James Mathew in the 19th century. It was a succinct takedown of the perversities of class-bound societies, where supposedly universal rights in fact depend on your bank balance. It’s tempting to mourn how little has changed since then but, actually, things did change, if only temporarily. The postwar Labour government first introduced legal aid as one of the central pillars of a new welfare state in 1949, allowing eight out of 10 Britons to access free or affordable legal assistance.

Related: Boris Johnson is told legal advice funding would stop if he hinders Covid inquiry

But a tragic historical lesson that needs to be learned over and over again is that, however permanent victories may seem, unless they are continually fought for, they can and will be reversed. Even before the Tories assumed power in 2010, only 27% had acccess to legal aid, and from 2013, David Cameron’s administration lopped off £751m from the £2.2bn legal aid fund.

The primary victims? Women, low earners and those from minority backgrounds. On the eve of Tory rule, there were about a million legal aid cases to get early advice; that number has now dropped to 130,000, and ordinary citizens are unable to get support for problems ranging from family to housing to debt. In the half a decade after the Tory onslaught against legal aid, half of all law centres and not-for-profit legal advice services in England and Wales vanished.

Ours is a country where a rich, powerful man like Johnson receives state support for his legal problems, despite his obvious wrongdoing in office. After all, he didn’t resign for nothing. But often traumatised women are left with nothing. Another women I spoke with, Sarah – again, not her name – said that, even though her former partner was was violent and her children fear him, working 16 hours a week took her over the threshold for legal aid. “No legal aid for us common people who aren’t former prime ministers,” is her caustic summary. She’s right to be furious. As our disgraced former ruler milks the state, despite being awash with millions, think of the struggling people his party has condemned to misery and hardship.

  • Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist