The Independent View: A liberal democracy must protect all people from the state. Support Emergency Motion 2 on Legal Aid

Last week Chris Grayling, the Minister for Justice, responded to 16,000 consultation objections, with changes to his criminal legal aid proposals.  He conceded that someone who’s been arrested should be able to choose their solicitor; and criminal representation shouldn’t be just about price, but quality too.

You may think justice has been saved. But it hasn’t. Far from it. Which is why we are asking you to urge your conference voting reps to choose the Legal Aid Motion (Emergency Motion 2) for debate.

Because Chris Grayling is still removing legal aid and access to justice from whole groups of people, defined by their status. And he has intensified his attacks on ordinary people’s ability to use judicial review to hold public bodies to account.

An attack on prisoners, immigrants and single issue campaigners may play well to the Tory faithful, via the pages of the Mail, but it conceals an attack on the roots of liberal democracy, public accountability, access to justice, and the rule of law.

It’s an attack that has lead to an inquiry by the Joint Committee on Human Rights and a former Law Lord to question whether the Minister can understand his statutory duty to uphold the rule of law.

Last week the Minister made much of his new exceptions. They are narrow and few. Vulnerable people will still be denied justice.

This is what is proposed now:

  1. Removing legal aid from certain groups because of their status (migrants and prisoners). This is unprecedented. It prompts the question: who’s next?
  2. Many vulnerable people will be unable to get effective access to a court at all. For example: a British citizen unlawfully removed or extraordinarily rendered abroad; a prisoner challenging overcrowding; a child seeking support while applying for immigration status; a person assaulted by the police who cannot show 12 months of lawful residence.
  3. No legal aid for anyone who doesn’t keep or can’t access his or her documents. Everyone will have to show they pass the residence test.
  4. It will be much harder to hold public bodies to account via judicial review. The changes are deliberately aimed at the most important cases which the government wants to stop: test cases; those that require the most early preparation; and cases where public interest groups are involved.

Originally, Chris Grayling said that legal aid reforms were to save money and restore public confidence. We have shown the proposals will cost much more than they save. Grayling does not deny this. Instead, he told the Justice Select Committee that his changes were “ideological”. He thinks some groups of people should not get legal aid, even when their case is strong and they have no other means of access to justice.

The Liberal Democrat Minister of State, Lord McNally, has been asked whether he shares this ideological view. He has not yet replied.

These are profound and dangerous constitutional changes. Undermining the rule of law erodes the very foundations of a liberal democracy. Yet they plan to do this by secondary legislation away from the scrutiny of Parliament and the pens of journalists.

We need to talk about this. We need to oppose these reforms. Please vote for the Legal Aid Motion.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* Helen Mountfield QC and Nick Armstrong are from Matrix Chambers.

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  • Richard Dean 14th Sep '13 - 10:25am

    One of the other proposed changes seems to have been to reduce solicitor’s fees by up to 35%, which many people might agree with in this time of financial constraint. Last time a friend used a solicitor she lost a whole lot of money for virtually nothing in return.

    Another proposed change was to make contracts to provide legal aid subject to competitive tendering. What is the present system for awarding contracts? If it’s based on nods and winks and who you know, then I’d say it’s in high need of reform .

  • The new legal aid system assigns people seeking justice a legal aid solicitor who may be several hundred miles away.

    To access this you need to be sifted through call centre queues, and answer questions from administrators for several hours.

    You are then assigned a solicitor, who will contact you at a random, inconvenient time of the administrator’s choice. This may well be after your court date has passed. You may not have representation in court.

    Its been properly wrecked.

  • Helen Dudden 17th Sep '13 - 10:58pm

    There will be no legal aid, and nods and winks are not the normal behavior of lawyers.

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