Opinion: Access to justice – why Liberal Democrats should not sit on the sidelines

Next week the Government will announce legislation to reform legal aid, following a Green Paper published last November to which the Ministry of Justice received an unprecedented 5,000 responses. Whilst “legal aid reform” was in the Coalition Agreement, the scale of proposed changes has taken many aback – in order to cut the legal aid budget by £350million, Justice Ministers propose taking whole categories of law related problems out legal aid entitlement – housing and debt problems, welfare benefit issues, employment law issues, immigration cases, consumer law problems, education cases and private family law issues (eg divorce and child contact).

The proposals could all but dismantle the civil legal aid scheme. Over half a million people may no longer to be able access free legal help to resolve their problems – these problems rarely end up in court, but are resolved early on through legal advice delivered mostly by specialist caseworkers at Citizens Advice Bureaux and Law Centres, or by solicitors in high street firms. The Ministry’s own Impact Assessments highlight that failure to resolve these problems could result in more homelessness, crime, reduced social cohesion, adverse impacts on children, debt and reduced economic efficiency.

At the Sheffield spring conference, a motion was overwhelmingly passed calling on the MoJ to reject these “significant reductions in access to justice,” look again at the impact and examine alternative ways to save money in the justice system.

The Justice Select Committee chaired by Alan Beith has since produced a report criticising the proposals and advocating an alternative approach.  Several of our MPs, most notably Tom Brake, Julian Huppert and Stephen Lloyd have raised strong concerns in several Parliamentary debates; it’s easy to see why MPs might be concerned – loss of casework services in local Citizens Advice Bureaux and could mean more casework for MP.

Our party always advocated strongly for equal access to justice, and local legal advice services such as Citizens Advice Bureaux are the type of community based, voluntary sector provision we have traditionally championed. Commitment to human and civil rights, and citizens capacity to access these rights is in the Party’s DNA. But quite apart from arguments of principle, there are evidence based arguments that the proposed savings will cost the state and society far more – a false economy as peoples’ unresolved legal problems accrue big costs to public bodies, and to the wider economy.

A lesson from the last political year is that we do ourselves no favours with the public by meekly supporting every ‘salami slice’ policy proposed by Tory Minsters, or measures which sit uncomfortably with our principles and pledges to protect the poor and vulnerable, without even having an argument. If, as I expect, next week’s proposals have not changed significantly from what was originally proposed, this is surely an issue over which our MPs, Peers, Councillors and activists should flex their collective political muscles.

James Sandbach works as a Policy Officer for Citizens Advice and co-ordinated the Justice4All campaign. He is also a Liberal Democrat activist and stood as Parliamentary candidate in Putney last year.

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3 Comments

  • Is this what the Archbishop meant when he talked about radical reforms that nobody voted for. Well I know how I voted in Sheffield and it was to oppose these so called ‘reforms’. It is vital that in any democracy the ordinary citizen should have access to justice and that money should not be the deciding factor. Unfortunately very few have access now, how can we allow it to become even worse.

  • Excellent & insightful analysis, I’m sure rowan would agree!

  • Also, homeowners will be ineligible for legal aid if their properties are worth more than £200,000 even if they are on income related benefits (eg carers) or have £190,000 mortgages
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-13457231

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