Access to justice and the right to a fair hearing are fundamental to the rule of law and any just society which values dignity and fairness. We are lucky enough to live in the oldest unbroken democracy on earth – a place where the vulnerable and voiceless should be able to defend their rights and challenge state abuse, even if they cannot afford to pay. Unfortunately brutal cuts to our legal aid system and further misconceived proposals are jeopardising our proud legacy as a nation which believes in justice for all:
Civil legal aid
Cuts have already put publically-funded advice and representation beyond the reach of vast swathes of the British population. Funding has been scrapped for entire areas, with the majority of family, immigration, employment, debt, welfare benefits and education cases now falling outside the system’s scope. Inevitably, society’s most vulnerable are hardest hit. Now an arbitrary, unjust proposed residency test risks creating another underclass of people unable to access the law’s protection – no matter how compelling their claim.
Criminal legal aid
When people face criminal prosecution they risk loss of reputation, livelihood and often liberty upon their conviction. With so much at stake, fair trial safeguards are non-negotiable. Without them innocent people are convicted, the rule of law suffers and public faith in our justice system breaks down. Original plans for criminal legal aid would have wrecked these proud protections, but even recent concessions on price competitive tendering (PCT) and harmonisation of advocacy fees don’t go far enough.
New Ministry of Justice proposals are particularly vicious towards Judicial Review. This crucial device is the ultimate protection for ordinary people against arbitrary power; holding government to certain standards of rationality and lawfulness and demanding respect for individual rights. The proposed shift would crush challenges before they have even begun; undermining this bulwark against state abuse and fundamentally unsettling a balance central to a democracy under the rule of law.
This debate on access to justice goes to the very heart of our national conscience. When politicians find themselves caught up in scandals of their own, they are the first to call in the lawyers. We may all need legal help at some point. And the poor and the vulnerable need it more than most.
We must not sacrifice our finest traditions and drive down quality in pursuit of short-sighted savings. Access to justice should be equal, open and fair. The fight for fairness goes on.