I was invited to a briefing at the Law Society yesterday morning on the back of a post I wrote last week about the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill currently being frogmarched through Parliament. As the briefing did, so I too am going to focus on the Legal Aid side of things – a subject I find myself new to; though in the light of everything I learnt yesterday, I have to say I am woefully sorry that I have arrived at this party at such a late hour.
I suppose and guess many of you out there are also unclear of the implications of cuts in Legal Aid – or, indeed, what position Legal Aid has occupied in British society since its constitution.
And I also suppose when we think of Legal Aid, we think of poor people without resources who cannot afford to defend themselves – for there are plenty of these sorts of people about; and there will be more so as the economic climate worsens. But Legal Aid, as it currently stands, serves a much wider remit than the simple defence of the marginalised in need. The vast majority of cases in the Crown Court require the support of Legal Aid services. Even in the Magistrates Court, up to fifty percent of all cases require such support. Without Legal Aid, without face-to-face consultations, without a decent and workable definition of domestic violence, hundreds of thousands of working people will be disenfranchised from their rights – just as the economy takes a turn for the worse.
And out of those hundreds of thousands, we might find ourselves one day suddenly without the right to financial support when we are at our most vulnerable. Maybe a case of medical negligence. Maybe a wife-beater – where the wife has complained to the police but not proceeded with a court case against her husband. Maybe a young person in digs in need of legal advice against a landlord from hell – unhappy to use mandatory phoneline assessment gateways where once a supportive face could have winkled out the bundle of other potential problems associated with the trigger which drove them to ask for help.
In a society which after the war was constituted to care for all its citizens, the principles of Legal Aid formed one of the pillars of our much treasured Welfare State – a state which in a number of other areas such as education, health and social care now finds itself under what appears to be totally irrational and incoherent attack from our government.
Sadly, I’ve come to the conclusion that the attacks are anything but incoherent – and, like Harry Potter’s invisibility magic, this awful awful Coalition is using the cloak of apparent incompetence to push ahead an entirely politically-driven agenda.
Where prevention was once seen to be better than cure, where intervention was once seen to be more cost-effective than litigation, the short-sighted proposals from a government bent on short-term slash and run seem clearly to have only one destination: that of undermining and unpicking the fabric of a supportive society where those in need could once have reasonably expected to find the support they needed.
Before I continue, let’s see an excerpt from a contextualising foreword by Linda Lee, President of the Law Society, to the briefing document I was given (intro here and full version in .pdf here) – and which was produced by the Sound Off For Justice initiative as a response by the legal profession to the government’s proposals. In what I can only reasonably describe as barely-contained fury, the Law Society’s official position is couched thus:
The Prime Minister and the Government want to reduce crime and the deficit. If they force the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill through parliament in its current form, they risk the opposite. The Bill focuses on only short-term budget-gain and not the long-term consequences.
The Justice Bill is littered with mistakes, inaccuracies and lacks detailed impact assessments. The figures and calculations the government have used for the Justice Bill are based on assumptions rather than evidence. This Bill leaves our civil justice system at the edge of an abyss beyond which we do not know where we are destined.
All the signs suggest that the Bill is to be forced through parliament in haste. The government is not listening.
I firmly believe that as it stands the Bill will only achieve the following:
- Cuts in civil legal will increase criminality and damage social cohesion;
- Cuts in civil legal aid will penalise the victims of crime and not the
- Clause 12 will undermine a cornerstone of our justice system;
- The Jackson reforms will increase costs to businesses, to government departments and the taxpayer as well as raid the damages of victims of serious injury by up to 25%.
- We oppose plans in clause 52 to cap the compensation people receive when they have been wrongfully prosecuted by the state.
What’s even more unpalatable, however, is the following series of realities. To the Law Society’s counter-proposals which run as follows …
The Government wants to cut the legal aid budget by £350 million. We recognise the argument for budget savings. We offer plans that could cut the legal aid budget by £360 million. We have a fully costed proposal, which will reduce the legal aid budget.
Our alternative plan will protect the victims and the most vulnerable. We know how to drive efficiencies through the legal aid system and we have called for a cap on all fees from the legal aid budget. To date we have been ignored or misunderstood by the Government.
… the government has then apparently produced a “feeble document” in reply – a document which contains little new data, and aims to rebut the Society’s arguments through a surfeit of rhetorical posturing.
For those of us already aware of government behaviours in other areas of society – from trades union legislation to NHS reorganisation, from education and tuition fee policies to social care cuts – none of this actually comes as a surprise. And yet I wonder if the government, in its outright rejection of fully-costed proposals by people who surely know the system inside out (proposals which would both cost less than the government’s own planned programme of cuts without, at the same time, hurting the most vulnerable in society), has not only bitten off more than it can chew but also runs the risk of choking on its own verbal incoherence.
Just to be clear here. Experts in a field, in this case the law, have proposed cuts which go far beyond what the government hopes to achieve – and have, at the same time, apparently squared the circle of client provision by guaranteeing that the most vulnerable will not be seriously affected. And yet the government, with the bluster of rhetorical device, apparently rejects this counter-package out of hand. The thread seems pretty common. The thesis hardly new. This is an ideologically-driven government bent on reshaping and re-engineering British society for the benefit of a chosen few and to the detriment of a needy many. They don’t actually intend to avoid the needy losing out on their rights – for legal rights, in this brave new world, will belong only to the most important amongst us. Those who make and shake and wish to own even more of the aforementioned real estate will – under these government proposals – get to do so.
And in the meantime, the strategy of this Coalition government becomes absolutely clear: the total and utter dismantling of British society as we know it.
The complete destruction of all of the pillars that once constituted our Welfare State.
So did you vote for that when you voted for them last year? Did you know that when your daughter suffered awful medical consequences at the hands of an incompetent surgeon you’d be making it more difficult to achieve the justice you deserved? Did you know that when you didn’t take your husband to court for those bruises you wouldn’t be able to get the kind of support you needed when the abuse became far more unpleasant and life-threatening?
Did you in fact understand that just as other elements of the Welfare State served to keep the wolf from the door for millions of people in our society – and thus achieve a cohesion which made Britain a place of imperfect tolerance but tolerance nevertheless – so the Legal Aid system as it currently stands has made the British legal landscape a better and more proactive place than anything which might have existed in its absence?
And when you voted for this band of rhetorical millionaires, did you actually appreciate they would take massive gambles with your future wellbeing based on hollow rebuttal and not evidence – that is to say, based on political hunches and not data?
So where’s the justice in that?
Please tell me, you (deathly) hallowed politicians who currently run this farce of a country: wherever in the world was the rhetoric of fiction so much more important than the reality of fact?
If not in 21st century Coalition Britain …
Update to this post: the BBC are now reporting this story thus.