Frightening times for access to justice

Posted by Rachel Robinson on 28 October 2011

Next week MPs will have their last chance to debate the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill before it moves to the House of Lords. It’s fitting that Monday is also Halloween, for there is much to be frightened of in these proposals.

Parts 1 and 2 of the Bill are full of short-sighted reforms that will decimate access to justice in England and Wales as we know it; placing justice beyond reach for many and creating alarming gaps in protection.

Without amendment this legislation will result in the removal of funding for entire areas of law. In the aftermath of the harshest recession in decades support for families struggling with debt will vanish. Partners embroiled in bitter custody disputes will no longer receive help and domestic abuse victims may face cross-examination by alleged assailants. Most cases involving employment, welfare benefits and immigration will not be covered.

Vital human rights – so often on the line in these areas – will also suffer. Government, big business and other members of the rich and powerful elite will be free to act with impunity; their violations coasting by unchallenged because people cannot afford the fight.

Our society’s most vulnerable – people with disabilities, children and crime victims (who will no longer get help claiming compensation) – will be hit hardest. Only the very poorest will still qualify for legal aid in the few areas it remains, and they may face a poorer service as overworked legal aid lawyers are stretched further still.

One of the Government’s arguments is that people will simply represent themselves. But without advice, people who have fallen victim to injustice will not know how to present their arguments in the alien surroundings of the court room.

The Ministry of Justice budget may be under pressure but this is a false economy. Any savings will be short term, as issues which could have been settled simply early on escalate into bigger cost burdens down the line. The Ministry will also have to foot the bill for the extra court time and resources taken up dealing with puzzled litigants struggling with complex legal problems.

Equality before the law and the right to a fair hearing are cardinal requirements of the rule of law and cornerstones of our society. They are fundamental and absolute; the law must exist to serve the poor and the rich alike. Post-war governments in Britain recognised this and rightly valued access to justice in the same way as access to education or healthcare. Today’s Coalition should remember that principle before effectively slamming shut our court doors to the majority of those who are not criminal defendants or the super-rich.

  • Find out more about our campaign to defend legal aid, Justice Within Reach
  • Ten reasons why Liberty oppose the legal aid cuts proposed by the Government
  • Read Liberty's latest parliamentary briefings on Part 1 and Part 2 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill
  • Find out more about the Justice For All coalition, which Liberty has joined, to fight the planned cuts to legal aid
Rachel Robinson, Policy Officer

Rachel Robinson

Liberty
Policy Officer