The raid on legal aid
Last night, Liberty joined hundreds of demonstrators to condemn cuts to legal aid. The protest took place outside the Ministry of Justice, provoked by devastating attacks on our legal system which are coming thick and fast. The atmosphere was brilliant as I joined speakers from a host of other legal organisations and campaign groups in sharing Liberty’s concerns about the misguided reforms with the crowd.
Cuts to civil legal aid have put publically funded legal advice and representation beyond much of the population. Funding has been scrapped for whole 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 the hardest hit.
Meanwhile access to civil legal aid is to depend on a residency test that is arbitrary and unfair. It would create an underclass of individuals – including abandoned migrant and trafficked children – uniquely susceptible to abuse and neglect. The test has been labelled unlawful in a legal opinion by leading QC Michael Fordham, who recognises that it would amount to discrimination.
And criminal legal fees are to be cut across the board, with fixed charges replacing graduated fees dependent on the progress of the case. Private companies which aren’t traditional law firms will be invited to bid for legal aid contracts. The focus will be upon price alone, with providers competing purely on cost rather than quality. People will be stripped of any choice as to who represents them.
These plans to distort our system in pursuit of narrow financial ends reveal a complete contempt for the administration of justice and fundamental fair trial rights. This price-obsessed philosophy is not only stubbornly short-term but totally inappropriate for sophisticated legal services. All incentive to offer an above average service will be lost and standards will inevitably suffer. The creation of a single fixed fee payable regardless of whether a client pleads guilty or not may lead less reputable lawyers to pressure their clients not to fight the charges against them.
These reforms aren’t about cutting the champagne budget of “fat-cat lawyers”, as some would have us believe; legal aid practitioners are often poorly paid. Rather, they are a deliberate assault on a fundamental principle – justice. Those who will suffer most are the disabled, children, refugees, those with crippling debts, crime victims and vulnerable individuals caught up in our criminal justice system. Meanwhile, the Government protects itself from effective challenge by restricting legal aid for judicial review.
We will all be worse off as a result. Proper access to legal redress is the best way of safeguarding a society where respect for human rights and due process guide the behaviour of the powerful. As I said last night, justice has to be equal and open for all. We must oppose the Government's proposals with every breath we have.