Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Justice denied?

I was disappointed to hear Ken Clarke on the PM programme yesterday evening, happy that Labour hadn't criticised his slashing cuts to legal aid and I wondered why we hadn't. Partly that will be because we were considering similar changes, but there will also be a significant lack of knowledge of the detail - the Guardian's law correspondent was essentially locked in the Ministry of Justice and had to distil 500 pages of text to find the changes. It is also true to say that defending fat cat lawyers is a challenging task at the best of times, more so when we are being forced to swallow cuts that will push families onto the street.

Changes are happening so fast at the moment that the very devil is in all the details - the impact of the welfare changes proposed last week will take some time to work out even for specialists - and we may not grasp the full import until all the adjustments and cuts have been implemented. On the positive side, legal aid has been retained for some of the most difficult cases - asylum issues, judicial review or cases involving forced marriage, domestic violence and children at risk of being taken into care, but that doesn't mean that people won't suffer. And it won't be the rich.

In these difficult times, finding support to argue against cuts in legal aid is difficult - there is an image of a gravy train for the lawyers (well represented in parliament, you will note) and of a 'compensation culture', an image that it suits the coalition government to sustain. However, as the Guardian puts it
There will be 547,000 fewer people each year getting help to resolve legal cases that matter to them and who can't afford their own legal advice. Many of them will be about family matters but they will also involve redundancy, housing, and debt which are all bound to get worse in the public sector squeeze.
A tip - get those union subs paid up. If the worst comes to the worst, all unions can offer workplace advice and many will also throw in some broader legal advice as well. The thing about access to justice is that it is an easy cut to make - right up until the point that you find you need it and you are blocked.

Nicholas Green is the chairman of the Bar Council and he is supportive, given the economic demands afflicting the country, but wants some security for the future and isn't without concerns.

I am sceptical that collectively they will save what the Treasury demands. If this is so, then it highlights the concern that flows from the fact that the cuts are Treasury-driven, not justice-driven. If, for instance, it takes longer to reduce prison costs, then where will the axe land in order to make up the shortfall? And how many further sections of the population will be denied access to the courts? My real concern is that at the end of four years the justice system will be in real crisis.

The new thresholds for legal aid will mean that many who must be described as poor will be denied legal assistance when they come into contact with the courts at crisis points in their lives about decisions going to the heart of their personal lives and those of their families. Legal aid will no longer be available for certain categories of cases involving education, immigration, employment, debt, and housing, all of which can involve very vulnerable people.

Justice delayed may be justice denied, but justice denied is no justice at all.

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