Tuesday 17th April 2012
By Lord Jeremy Beecham, Opposition Spokesman for Communities, Local Government and Health
Access to justice is hugely important to a great many people throughout England and Wales and constitutes one of the most important pillars of the English legal system. Indeed, the rule of law is meaningless without it. However, that is now in jeopardy as a result of the Coalition Government’s decision to cut civil legal aid by 30 per cent in the face of opposition by the legal profession and much of the voluntary sector
An estimated 650,000 people and their dependents will be denied access to justice as a result of the Ministry of Justice’s ill-thought out and ideologically driven policy to cut legal aid funding.
The Ministry of Justice argues that significant savings will be made by reforming legal aid. But a recent study by Kings College London found that while the Ministry of Justice’s budget may benefit there will be significant extra burdens on other government departments, and the impact of this is unknown. And the Public Accounts Committee has already identified that as an issue. Alternative savings proposed by the Law Society have been rejected out of hand.
There is an assumption by government that non-profit organisations such as the Citizens Advice Bureau will fill the vacuum created as a result of the cuts. But those organisations are experiencing very significant cuts themselves. For instance, CABs have seen their budgets cut by £80 million. So non-profit organisations will simply not have the capacity to deal with the growing demand generated by the withdrawal of legal aid. And the government’s reliance on mediation overstates its suitability, particularly where there is disequilibrium between the parties.
I have coined the phrase “the legally squeezed middle”–people of moderate means who will be affected by the cuts to legal aid, especially in the family law arena. It is not just working-class people or people on benefits who will be affected although they will take a particular hit given the withdrawal of legal aid and advice from welfare law in the widest sense and the inadequacy of the proposed telephone gateway to advice, likely to be unsuitable for many people. Furthermore, women will be acutely disadvantaged especially concerning domestic violence and family areas.
Children will also be deprived of legal aid even in clinical negligence, except for perinatal cases, because the Legal Aid Bill axes categories of law without any regard for the characteristics of the client.
Over the last two years the government has not listened much at all. The attitude of Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke to the legal system is like the attitude of the Sherriff of Nottingham, his home town. The government has cherry picked from Lord Justice Jackson’s proposed reforms and the changes to conditional fees will hurt successful claimants and deter people with arguable cases. If it has listened to anybody it has been to insurance companies who have lobbied hard for changes in civil litigation and who have, incidentally, contributed a large amount of money to the Conservative Party. And as I said in the House of Lords, insurance companies are second only in the depths of public esteem to bankers.
We are now in a situation where the government is promoting access to British justice to the world as a growth industry. It is keen to sell top-end legal services but not keen to supply necessary legal services to people who really need them and cannot afford to pay for them. And it is that contrast which will damage the standing of the English legal system in the eyes of the world. Our legal system is on the way to becoming a forum of choice for rich people while the poor and people of modest means are being left with little or no choice.