Opinion: Conference votes again on access to justice, Parliamentarians should follow

For the third Party conference in a row, Liberal Democrats  voted for a policy motion covering legal aid and access to justice directly contrary to the Government’s legal aid reforms – in the Legal Aid, Sentencing Punishment of Offenders Bill (LASPO) – reaching their final stages in Parliament. Gateshead conference voted to ensure that “the scope of civil legal aid covers appropriate legal help and assistance in categories of law where the issues raised are of substantial importance.. and which cannot be settled by alternative dispute resolution” but night after night I see our Peers voting to remove category after category of law from the “scope” of civil legal aid, leaving a fig-leaf service available only for those issues ring-fenced by the UK’s human rights obligations. The categories of law excluded are the very areas of law dealing with the most excluded people (debt, immigration, family breakdown, employment rights, landlord-tenant, and social security). And the impact does not so much pull the legal aid rug from profitable private practice, but falls more heavily on non-profit bodies (such as CABs) as this sector loses 77% of its legal aid income. No sector can absorb a cut of that magnitude and survive.

It is high time our Parliamentarians stopped being so Janus-faced in making grandiose speeches against the LASPO Bill and waxing lyrical about equal justice but voting for every LASPO clause, and against every constructive amendment. The notable exception has been Dee Doocey’s successful amendment for legal aid advice to cover social security appeals – something previously called for by the Birmingham autumn conference “for Government to reconsider the exclusion of welfare benefits casework…from the scope of legal aid” and also trailed by Tom Brake MP during Commons stages of the Bill. Lets hope this amendment is retained.

Sheffield spring conference last year called on the Party to “Reject any changes to Legal Aid which lead to significant reductions in access to justice”. If LASPO goes through, every year 650,000 people will loose legal aid, and the same motion warned against the “consequence of any loss of access to adequate legal advice by those with housing, immigration, employment and education cases.”  The Sheffield motion also called for “A more strategic approach towards provision, funding and delivery of legal and advice services in communities on issues such as welfare benefits, debt, housing and employment.” Alas removing these issues from scope does not count as strategy, and LASPO rattles on forwards towards the statute book largely unchanged from a year ago (bar ‘concession fodder’) when the draft proposals were slammed by 5,000 consultees – judges, charities, disability groups, women’s organisations, councils, advice agencies and lawyers alike.

Legal aid has a proud history, but community advice services such as Law Centres fear they are looking at the end of the road. At Gateshead, the Law Society hosted a reception called “Last Chance Saloon” for access to justice, an apt description as without a properly functioning legal aid system we can only look forward to wild west justice.

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  • Tony Greaves 15th Mar '12 - 7:19pm

    You are right, James. But after returning for two days down here this week, I am dismayed and appalled at how much almost everyone is a prisonerof the Westminster Bubble – or rather the Lords Bubble, an even more inward-looking subset of the wide Westminster Bubble.

    There is no hope with out a significant change of attitude and that’s not coming overnight.

    Tony Greaves

  • Adam Bernard 15th Mar '12 - 7:28pm

    Tony Greaves: do you have suggestions for how the process could be speeded up? Is there anything that the party can do, or must the change of attitude come soley from within Westminster?

  • Andrew Suffield 15th Mar '12 - 7:47pm

    Sheffield spring conference last year called on the Party to “Reject any changes to Legal Aid which lead to significant reductions in access to justice”. If LASPO goes through, every year 650,000 people will loose legal aid

    But not, necessarily, access to justice.

    I haven’t seen anybody make the case that legal aid is necessary for this. This strikes me as odd, because it seems like it should be an easy case to make.

    It is high time our Parliamentarians stopped being so Janus-faced

    The position of the LD parliamentary party is, so far as I can make out, that in these cases legal aid is simply unnecessary.

    That position is a bit weak, but it is not immediately apparent that they are wrong. So I don’t find your claims about them very convincing; it seems that they simply disagree with you that legal aid is needed in these cases.

    Can you prove them wrong? Otherwise this just looks like “he said, she said” stuff, where I can’t form a real opinion beyond irritation.

  • James Sandbach 15th Mar '12 - 11:16pm

    I think the PP’s position (or rather their defence of the Government/Ken Clarke position) is based on a misunderstanding of the legal aid system that it’s all about lawyers catching and pushing their clients into court and legalising their problems unecessarily at vast public expense and profit to them. In fact in legal aid the model has shifted away from that significantly over the past 15 years towards early advice, prevention and keeping problems out of court., So take the 650,000 figure of cases taken out of scope – 600,000 are advice cases whilst only 50,000 are cases taken to court whereby a lawyer takes out a certificate to represent their client in court – of the other 600,000 the vast majority never go anywhere near a court – or if they do get into the legal system they are resolved either out of court or at a tribunal which the advice will help them to navigate. The motion mentions ADR and ‘importance’ – means/merits testing and ADR/mediation have long been written into the legal aid rules. But perhaps most importantly, 85% of legal aid users are in the bottom income quintile – so therefore from the least literate or legally savy groups – and a high proportion are seriosluly vulnerable,. Take the social security category as an example – 135,000 people excluded 66% of whom have disabilities according to LSC data. Now Tony also unearthed an interesting piece of data in a Lords question which showed that of those helped by legal aid with benefit problems got over 90% positive outcomes. And I can give you plenty of evidence that even under the existing system the demand for good quality specialist advice well exceeds supply. What we mean by legal aid in this context is appropriate specialist advice from non profit agencies funded through legal aid – these agencies only pass the most complex or difficult cases on to specialists.

    As regards my comments re the PP voting position, I have not said this lightly, disingenuously or without understanding, empathy and insight. All of us in political life hold and espouse contradictory positions across a range of issues – indeed the political process almost demands it. But I am trying to make a point – to vote to maintain legal categories within legal aid on Sunday (Gateshead), and then vote to abolish them Monday (Lords), is stretching this a bit!

    It is thankfully refreshing to have people like Tony (who has not been though the Government lobby on LASPO) and Dee in the Lords who have maintained grassroots links by staying on elected bodies (GLA and Pendle Cncl) and therefore understand slightly better how things work and look on the ground – I fear that once embroilled in full-time coalition Lordery, official briefings can distort perceptions a bit away from the objective evidence.

    In fact I’m not clear exactly what the official PP position is – certainly pre-coalition it always recognised that legal aid was an under-resourced rather than an over-resourced service.

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