The Independent View: The Last Chance Saloon for Access to Justice?

At the Liberal Democrat Conference last Autumn, Nick Clegg delivered a passionate defence of a liberal justice system. He concluded his speech by arguing that, although these were not easy times for the country, ‘our party has fought for liberal values for a century and a half: justice, optimism, freedom. We’re not about to give up now’.

Yet in its haste to cut 23% from the budget of the Ministry of Justice and tackle the perception of a compensation culture (a perception some members of the Government and parts of the media are only too ready to cultivate) the Government has sought to introduce a series of short-sighted cuts to legal aid and misguided changes to the operation of ‘no win, no fee’ agreements. The result will be a twin assault on the ability of people of low or ordinary means to access justice and a series of cuts that will be largely ineffective.

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – the Government’s chosen conduit for these reforms – is nearing the end of its Parliamentary scrutiny: I believe that the Liberal Democrats have one last chance to stand up for liberal justice.

The Lord Chancellor, Ken Clarke and the Lib Dem Justice Minister Lord McNally justify the cuts to legal aid and the other provisions in the Bill on two premises: the first is that they will not damage access to justice for the most vulnerable people in society; the second that they will save large amounts of money.

Both of these premises are hugely contentious.

Access to justice threatened

At times of economic uncertainty of course all budgets must come under close scrutiny. The Law Society recognises that at a time of austerity savings must be found – that is why we offered an alternative set of cuts that delivered budget reductions without sacrificing access to justice. However, in its haste to cut the cost of legal aid the Coalition rejected our counter proposals (never once having discussed the proposals) and have opted to remove legal advice and representation from some of the most vulnerable members of society: disabled people wrongly refused welfare benefits; children with tragic injuries as the result of clinical negligence and victims of human trafficking, who have often been brought to the UK in the most horrific of circumstances.

Backbench Liberal Democrats in the Commons and the Lords, among them Simon Hughes, Tom Brake and an experienced group of Peers headed by Lord Thomas of Gresford, have proposed several thoughtful amendments that are vital for the defence of access to justice. The Government would be wise to listen to the expertise on its own benches.

At the same time, in misguided efforts to tackle the myth of a compensation culture, the Government has sought to overhaul ‘no win, no fee’ agreements in such a way as to place justice beyond reach for all but the most wealthy. In particular, the Government’s proposal to make the success-fee payable from the claimant’s damages will make such cases uneconomical in lower value, higher risk, or higher complexity cases. The Governments recent concessions for clinical negligence cases may allow perhaps just handful of cases to be retained in the legal aid scheme.

Substantial damage; insubstantial saving

Assessing the evidence for the Bill, Matthew Elliot of the Taxpayers Alliance, writing in the Daily Mail – not a usual suspect when it comes to opposing Government spending cuts – noted:

“Almost everyone who has looked at these particular cuts thinks that too many of them will end up costing taxpayers more than they save.”

The Citizens Advice Bureau point out that advice costing £80 to deal with a housing problem can save thousands for councils who are legally required to house homeless families, whilst King’s College London found that cutting £10.5m for legal aid in clinical negligence cases will cause knock-on costs to the NHS of £28.5m.

If this Bill passes unamended it will be a nail in the coffin for fair and equal access to justice. Ordinary people seeking legitimate legal redress need the Liberal Democrats to grasp this last chance to stand up for the Party’s policy – recently reaffirmed at the Spring 2011 Conference – and defend liberal justice.

Des Hudson is the Chief Executive of the Law Society

The Law Society will host a drinks reception – ‘The Last Chance Saloon for Access to Justice’ – at the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in Gateshead, Saturday 10 March, 20:00 – 21:15, MEC 2 at the Sage Gateshead.

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