Lib Dem Lawyers’ Open Memo calls for more vocal party support for legal aid

Imagine you are charged with a criminal offence. It has the potential to result in loss of your freedom, reputation, job, family, custody of your children and so on.  You will want a trained professional to help you.  Someone to explain to you the law that applies to the offence, what the state needs to prove against you and what defences may be available.  Someone to scrutinise the evidence against you objectively and assist you in presenting your defence. Someone to protect you from any abuses of power by the state’s police or prosecutors. And if you are guilty, someone to help you explain to the court any good reasons for a measure of leniency that might apply before you are punished.

Anyone who believes in a just, decent society would want anyone who is accused to have that kind of assistance.  It is assistance without which we cannot be sure, as a society, that we are accurately punishing the guilty and protecting the not guilty.

But, right, now if you are charged with an offence in England & Wales you are likely to have serious problems finding any representation.

If you have the means you may be able to pay privately to have a lawyer represent you.  The problem with that is that even if you are found to be not guilty, under a recent law change, you may not get your costs back – as Nigel Evans MP found out to his cost.  Right now, we live in a country where the state can accuse you wrongly and when a jury of your neighbours acquit you are still left vastly out of pocket.  That is not fairness and in so far as we are all exposed to that risk, we are not living in a state of freedom.

But what about legal aid?   Won’t the state provide representation for you?

No. Not at the moment.  On 1 April 2018 (the date is no joke) the government brought into force changes to AGFS (the scheme under which barristers and solicitor-advocates doing criminal work are paid) which mean there is an effective 40% real terms cut since 1997.  I cannot think of any public service that could work in 2018 with 40% less funding than in 1997.  Following an overwhelming vote of the Criminal Bar Association members, most qualified lawyers are refusing to accept work under the new scheme.  For most, this will mean a complete loss of income for the duration of the dispute and people are permanently leaving criminal work, or law completely, in droves.

What is at stake here though is not lawyers and their pay but rather the freedom of all us who, if we are accused of crime and everything we value is at stake, need advice and assistance to put our side of the story as well as it can be.

Take a look around your local court house (constitutionally they are, and have to be, open to the public). Many are in appalling state of repair – a significant number are not even fully accessible to the disabled – signifying to everyone who comes into them the lack of value that those in power attach to the place where justice is supposed to be done.

There is a moral challenge for Liberal Democrats to speak out loudly in defence of legal aid.

Lawyers tend to be people of liberal values.  Most have a commitment to the rule of law and human rights. Most believe in a fair society and an economy that has a mix of private and public ownership. Most are progressive in their outlook.  In other countries, lawyers have been keen supporters of the liberal party.  In the USA, lawyers have helped the Democratic Party prosper and elect liberal presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Barak Obama.

I want to see Liberal Democrats return to power in this country.  I anticipate that a necessary step towards that is for the party to build alliances with many groups of people, including legal aid lawyers, whose interests and values are decent, honourable and aligned with our party’s vision for society.

So, far the party has made no statement at all on the AGFS dispute.  This must change.

I and 18 other Liberal Democrat lawyers, law student or others who care about this issue have written an Open Memo to our MPs, Peers and the party’s Federal Board.  We call for the party to support the CBA’s recommendations and generally to take a bold stand in defending legal aid as part of a civilised society.

You can read the memo via my website here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

* Antony Hook was #2 on the South East European list in 2014, is the English Party's representative on the Federal Executive and produces this sites EU Referendum Roundup.

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27 Comments

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 19th Apr '18 - 9:55am

    Michael, you are absolutely right. The coalition supported reductions in legal aid that were entirely out odds with the policies passed at conference. We need to take this issue seriously now and say that legal aid is to be different. This is one of many issues where a certain break with the actions of 2010-15 is needed.

  • Michael Bukola is quite right. Only five days ago the Guardian reported that 99 % of all disability appeals have been refused legal aid. If Mrs May can apologise for Windrush the Lib Dems should apologise for this. I’m afraid the credibility gap mentioned by Michael is of Grand Canyon proportions.

  • Antony, you are right, we do need to say more on this, and some of us have been banging this drum for years.

    But David and Michael are right too: we need to acknowledge and apologise for our part in making the system the way it is.

  • The Lib-Dems were instrumental in slashing the Legal Aid budget, LASPO etc, also quite cruelly the party helped the tories to criminalise squatting in residential buildings. The misery, pain and humiliation those reforms have caused can and should be laid at the Lib-Dem door. Asking the public to trust the Lib-Dems again is laughable. I would never vote Lib-Dem again because the party leadership proved themselves to be a bunch of power hungry megalomaniacs.Never, ever, a lib-dem again.

  • Sue Sutherland 19th Apr '18 - 11:22am

    Unfortunately when we were in Coalition we agreed with a lot of things that were against our principles and we don’t just have a credibility gap with the public we have one with ourselves. Of course the situation with legal aid is abominable but does that mean we can’t now oppose something that happened when we were in Coalition? How were our leaders able to disregard the policies agreed by conference? Shouldn’t we introduce measures preventing this from happening again?
    I think members need to take hold of this and demand that policies agreed by Conference are sacrosanct until members agree otherwise. Then perhaps we can move on and develop policies that are true to our Lib Dem beliefs and trust they will be followed. I think those MPs that are still with us and played a part in Coalition should apologise to the members and the wider public, otherwise we don’t know whether what we did in Coalition reflects our true position or not.
    If these steps were taken to bring the country back from economic disaster as a short term measure then we should say so but we have failed to make this clear. I am deeply distressed that what is happening to the Windrush children is because of a change in the law made when we were in Coalition. Of course, they too must have found the lack of legal aid disastrous.

  • The hostile environment policy began under the Coalition. The party could and should have stopped it.Instead, the language of right-wing bigotry was normalised through Home Office fiat. The party tacitly consented to policies that would have been unthinkable pre-2010, and to add insult to injury we got told by the leadership that ” we are doing this in the national interest”. It was in the Tories interest not in the national interest.

  • Anthony, I do not accept that I am being selective, I think that you are not facing up to difficult truths,e.g. the impact of Lib-Dem supported cuts to Legal Aid.

    https://www.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Assessment-Report-325-Statistics-on-Legal-Aid-in-England-and-Wales.pdf

    https://www.fabians.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Bach-Commission-Appendix-6-F-1.pdf

  • Peter Martin 19th Apr '18 - 5:26pm

    The Blair government were keen to be seen to be “anti-criminal” and reducing access to legal aid chimes with public sentiment at times. As previously mentioned 2005 saw the Carter review which slashed spending on legal aid. The same year also saw the removal of 800 year old legal principle that a defendant cannot be charged twice for the same crime. So, even if anyone is acquitted the first time they’ll need very deep pockets to afford decent legal representation if the State decides to have another go – a couple of years later.

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 19th Apr '18 - 8:01pm

    Saskia,

    I don’t dispute the Coalition was crap on legal aid. But you don’t seem to appreciate that Labour in government was just as bad. All parties have a bad record on legal aid.

    That is why I say the big question is who will be serious about legal aid now, and in the future.

  • @Anthony “Labour was just as bad”. The cuts since 2012 amounts to £1 billion. How much did Labour cut?

  • Everyone seems to assume that the costs of our legal system are reasonable. There seems to be a lot of evidence that there are better ways of dealing with most alleged offences. Would it not be better to focus on how this can be done? And on how those accused and those who may have been victims feel better about the experience they have of the justice system?

  • Jayne mansfield 20th Apr '18 - 7:43am

    @ Antony Hook.
    Never mind the whataboutery. Some of us were voting Liberal democrat when Labour was making its cuts. We were voting Liberal Democrat because we expected something different of the party.

    The Liberal Democrats Party can once more return to claiming whatever it wishes to claim about values and principles in its renewed scramble for power, but it is what one does when one has power that best indicates just what the party stands for.

    What the Liberal Democrat party enabled and supported during the coalition was contemptible, unless one feels that making the lives of those bearing the most stress, even more distressing.

  • Jayne Mansfield
    There was never any question the Britain would escape the consequences from the financial crisis of 2008 scot free, Cuts became inevitable.
    The 1997 Asian financial crisis began because a weak government would not make the necessary corrections. Millions were pushed back into poverty as a result.

  • Dean Crofts 20th Apr '18 - 9:13am

    Yes we got it wrong in the coalition, no point looking back must look forward. Vincent says we must not be tribal, I disagree. We must stand up for Liberal policies and stick up for them if we get anywhere near government again, no coalitions, but voting on a policy by policy basis, at least the public will start to respect us for that. We must support policies like innocent until proven guilty, support legal aid and looking at reducing legal costs at the same time, more and more we are seeing accusations of what people have done before a trial or evidence is given to confirm their guilt, Windrush especially. We need a clear and loud message, I am ready to stand up and give one, who else is in the parliamentary party ready to do this?

  • Dean Crofts 20th Apr '18 - 9:13am

    Yes we got it wrong in the coalition, no point looking back must look forward. Vincent says we must not be tribal, I disagree. We must stand up for Liberal policies and stick up for them if we get anywhere near government again, no coalitions, but voting on a policy by policy basis, at least the public will start to respect us for that. We must support policies like innocent until proven guilty, support legal aid and looking at reducing legal costs at the same time, more and more we are seeing accusations of what people have done before a trial or evidence is given to confirm their guilt, Windrush especially. We need a clear and loud message, I am ready to stand up and give one, who else is in the parliamentary party ready to do this?

  • Dean Crofts 20th Apr '18 - 9:13am

    Yes we got it wrong in the coalition, no point looking back must look forward. Vincent says we must not be tribal, I disagree. We must stand up for Liberal policies and stick up for them if we get anywhere near government again, no coalitions, but voting on a policy by policy basis, at least the public will start to respect us for that. We must support policies like innocent until proven guilty, support legal aid and looking at reducing legal costs at the same time, more and more we are seeing accusations of what people have done before a trial or evidence is given to confirm their guilt, Windrush especially. We need a clear and loud message, I am ready to stand up and give one, who else is in the parliamentary party ready to do this?

  • Dean Crofts 20th Apr '18 - 9:15am

    Apologies on my mobile and post comment button got sticky

  • Manfarang, please do pull the other one.Your line of reasoning is Tory propaganda, pure and simple. Austerity was a political project and trying to dress it up as necessary economic reform is just plain silly. Also, you seem to suggest that cutting welfare payments to the most vulnerable members of our society is the hallmark of ” a strong government”.

    Regardless of how you feel the Coalition came very close to permanently destroying the party. We allowed our leaders to gamble with the future of our party, with no regard for the efforts that had gone into building the party (previous generations).

  • There are probably few people in the Liberal Democrats who are entirely happy with the policy outcomes of the last Coalition.

    But we are in the party because we believe better is possible – we can achieve power again and do better.

    What I am focussed on is the future and trying to get Liberal Democrats to be bold on legal aid. At the moment none of the parties are.

  • Antony your optimistic selective memory does you credit – though that old management mantra ‘the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour’ is more persuasive as things stand at the moment.

  • Sue Sutherland 20th Apr '18 - 11:44am

    As I remember it we went into Coalition to sort out the financial crisis and as Manfarang says cuts were inevitable and they happened but since Coalition the Tories have increased those cuts unnecessarily. What I want to see, like Antony, is the party doing better in the future. Legal Aid is vital to protect the rights of many of our citizens but in my view should be a part of a package of reforms to provide a better safety net for people in need.

  • Sue Sutherland 20th Apr ’18 – 11:44am,

    When we were in coalition, far from ‘reluctant cuts’ we cheered on every one..Danny Alexander spent far more time with the media than did Osborne…Do you remember the “75% of coalition policies are LibDem”, our support of the Bedroom tax, etc….To pretend that the Tory cuts were ‘nothing to do with us’ is disingenuous….

    We helped start the attack on the weakest in society; why are we shocked when they continue?

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 20th Apr '18 - 1:13pm
  • saskia
    Was the 1997 Asian Financial crisis Tory propaganda too or that in Argentina a few years later?
    As Vince Cable said in his book ‘The Storm’ “Britain’s housing and debt bubbles have been larger than elsewhere; the government has less room to cut taxes or increase public spending because it has borrowed too much in the good times; and an economy far too dependent on financial services has left the UK exposed to the “full force of the gale that is blowing through international financial markets”.

  • Rita Giannini 23rd Apr '18 - 12:35pm

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