Lib Dem Voice last week featured a brief post on the Coalition’s plans for legal aid reform. But this is an important change that’s been passed with barely a murmur from any Lib Dem MPs, when in fact it strikes at a principle at the heart of the party – civil liberties.
The bill in which this change is contained, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, is currently making its way through the House of Commons. For something that will have fairly drastic effects on many people’s access to justice there has been relatively little talk about it, so I thought it was worth having a slightly closer look at the proposals and why it should concern Lib Dems.
The Ministry of Justice claims that the British legal system is “the most expensive in the world”. The cuts are an effort to reduce the annual legal aid bill of £2.1 billion and will fall in particular on cases involving immigration, employment, debt, welfare benefit, divorce, and welfare benefits among others.
Unsurprisingly, these cuts have been met with significant opposition from many lawyers and civil liberties campaigners. Liberty says that the changes will “ensure that court doors in England and Wales are effectively locked to anyone other than criminal defendants and the super-rich”.
The lawyers agree, arguing that “its proposals will be a hammer blow to some of the most vulnerable people in our society”.
On top of that, the chairman-elect of the Bar Council has criticised the reforms as being potentially damaging to UK business and even threatening to undermine the rule of law.
Regardless of the financial implications of the cuts, and, at £2.1 billion, many might argue the current legal aid system provides value for money, what is at threat here is a principle of UK justice: equal access for all to free and independent legal advice.
This principle was introduced in the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (known colloquially at PACE amongst legal aid lawyers) in response to several high profile miscarriages of justice in the 1970s, such as the Guildford Four.
Some Liberal Democrat MPs such as Tom Brake, are speaking out against the changes; the worry is that they are currently slipping through relatively unnoticed when instead this should be something of a totemic issue for the party. Let’s hope Liberal Democrat peers in the Lords are listening.
* Alex Paul is a Lib Dem member and student activist, originally from West London but now living and studying in Edinburgh. He sits on Liberal Youth Scotland’s executive and studies international relations in hsi spare time.