Liberal Democrat members know that cuts to civil legal aid are illiberal. And they know the leadership is not facing a dilemma between protecting liberal values and cutting the deficit because these cuts will cost, not save, money.
It was why the Emergency Motion to oppose cuts to legal aid (until it can be proved there will be “no adverse effect upon access to justice”) came out top of the ballot at conference this year and was then overwhelmingly passed. I had previously asked Lib Dem Voice readers to support this motion in the ballot so I want to say ‘thank you’.
Civil legal aid reforms, along with the further changes proposed to judicial review, attack our constitutional rights by removing our access to justice. They will have both serious and harmful effects for some individuals – from the older person discharged from hospital without care, to the abandoned mother of three who has not managed to regularise her status, despite living in the UK for 10 years – and for society at large as the lack of scrutiny of individual cases leads to the state being beyond the law.
For an observer there are many similarities between legal aid cuts and secret courts.
Both are about core Liberal Democrat issues of holding the state to account and protecting civil liberties. And in both cases the leadership were or are in a position to prevent the attack but either failed or are failing to.
Members voted not once, but twice, on motions that opposed changes to the secret courts in the Justice and Security Bill, just like they’ve voted twice on motions to protect legal aid and access to justice.
Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, has come out publicly on both issues, saying he was “troubled” by secret courts. On legal aid, he warned Ministers to be “very careful”, adding “The courts have no more important function than that of protecting citizens from the abuses and excesses of the executive”.
Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR), recommended amendments to the Justice and Security Bill which were ignored. On legal aid the JCHR is still carrying out its inquiry (which the Minister is refusing to wait for) stating “The human rights implications of the changes to legal aid (…) are of fundamental significance for the right of access to justice and the rule of law.”
And, as with secret courts, the Lib Dems hold the balance of power, as Labour, despite proposing cuts to legal aid while in power, oppose cuts to civil legal aid.
At the same time as the members voted for the legal aid motion in Glasgow, the leadership began to listen to last year’s motion on secret courts. However the Justice and Security Act has come into force, which means the leadership can only now pledge to find “practical alternatives”.
But legal aid is live, just. The government is rushing through the cuts using secondary legislation to bypass Parliamentary scrutiny. If the Lib Dem Parliamentary Party listen to their members and act right now they could protect our civil liberties.
In this week’s New Statesman there’s a postcard that you can send to Nick Clegg (or you can request one from Save Justice UK) – just add why you think the leadership should listen to their members.
It might stop legal aid becoming next year’s secret courts.
* Nick Armstrong of Matrix Chambers is a public lawyer with a particular interest in immigration and asylum, prisoners and community care and mental health.