Opinion: Legal Aid – the new NHS?

The aspect of Conference I most value is the opportunity to hear first hand from Ministers, MPs and Lords the thought processes and details of what we are doing in Government and to see them listen to the feedback from those who are delivering the relevant services on the ground.

A fringe debate on the NHS I attended this week was a great example of that – an open, constructive, intelligent exchange of differing views which left a clear sense that our party in government is listening and acting and has a plan.

Contrast that with the fringe meeting convened by Justice for All on the proposed changes to the legal aid system and the withdrawal of significant, often life-changing, assistance to the most vulnerable in our society.

Such was the lack of engagement from Lord McNally that I googled to check a Tory Lord McNally hadn’t been invited by mistake.

When Lord McNally became our leader in the Lords in 2004, he pledged to position the Lib Dems as “the voice of conscience & reform on issues such as civil liberties, human rights, changes to the legal system and access to justice”.

We all know that Ministers of State are severely restricted in what they can say and that defending a Bill with which they disagree is extremely uncomfortable for them.

It was therefore a saddening and unedifying experience to hear Lord McNally failing to engage with any of the suggestions or arguments put forward by the advice profession on what is a fundamental weapon in the struggle to create a just and fair society.

In drawing attention to Alistair Webster’s open letter on this issue (as chair of the Lib Dems’ Lawyers Association), LibDemVoice’s Mark Pack expressed surprise at Alistair’s “over the top rhetoric”. Frankly, given the amount of frustration and headbanging suffered by the 5,000 ignored respondees to the consultation on this issue, it is a wonder Alistair can still manage to write coherently at all.

In short, the proposals contained in the Bill are counter-productive and regressive, and the government is signally failing to engage in any meaningful way with the constructive proposals to save the required £350m in ways which do not impact on the lives of vulnerable people.

I strongly urge Lib Dem members to engage with this issue as they have done with NHS reform, both for the sake of those whose lives it will affect and to empower Lord McNally to live up to his pledge.

* Karen Wilkinson is a Lib Dem member in South Gloucestershire.

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6 Comments

  • Grammar Police 25th Sep '11 - 7:15pm

    Was at both these meetings and thought exactly the same!!

  • Karen Wilkinson 26th Sep '11 - 4:32pm

    Thanks Grammar Police, nice to know I wasn’t alone! I know this was an unconstructive rant but the sense of frustration amongst those involved is palpable. I wish I had been able to get to the other fringe with Tom Brake as that sounds as if it was a more open debate.

    For anyone interested in following this more:

    For a rather more considered approach, herewith the Bar Council’s Parliamentary Briefing for the 2nd Reading:

    http://www.barcouncil.org.uk/assets/documents/Legal%20Aid%20and%20Sentencing%20Bill%20Commons%202R%20Bar%20Council%20briefing%20270611.pdf

    “Sound Off for Justice” (www.soundoffforjustice.org) is the central campaign against the changes.

    A Guardian article last Friday contrasting Nick’s speech with the proposed reforms: http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2011/sep/23/nick-clegg-liberal-legal-aid

    I have no doubt that as with the NHS, LibDems with the relevant expertise and experience are doing all they can to protect the interests of those most in need. What I want is to understand what that is because this Bill will have significant repercussions on people who will want to know “Where were the LibDems?”

  • James Sandbach 26th Sep '11 - 5:30pm

    Thanks Karen for bringing this to libdem voice – I did so also back in June before the proposals came out warning our Party about this

    https://www.libdemvoice.org/author/james-sandbach

    libdem campaigners urgently need to engage with this issue and put some pressure on our MPs- the legal aid package before Parliament was not in the coalition agreement and is contary to every motion we have passed on the subject.

    Problem is that’s it’s easily charactertured as lawyers bleating about their pay and greedy for public subsidies etc – this is nonsense, the sector that is being cut (by 77%) is CABx and community law centres which help the most vulnerable – 650,000 people to loose advice, 90% in the lowest income quintile, according to the impact assessment (another myth is that this is about reducing unecessary litigation and legal proceedings – again nonsense, what is being cut is advice which resolved problems without going to court)

    I begin to wonder if we’re really serious about community politics if our Party hasn’t picked up on the existential threat here to CABx and community advice..often our partners in local campaigns and casework [note to Mark Pack and others on LD voice who don’t seen to get this!]

    I was one of the founders of justice4all which has brought together the whole community sector in opposing these changes – see http://www.justice4all.org.uk – everyone from faith groups and the Women’s Institute, community organiisations to all the larger disability and childrens’ charities.

  • Karen Wilkinson 26th Sep '11 - 11:29pm

    Thanks for reading Greg & sorry we never caught up at Conference for a proper chat.

    Nicholas Fluck of the Law Society raised concern about the “dismantling” of the no-win no-fee system at the fringe meeting. Sound off for Justice link http://soundoffforjustice.org/conditional-fee-arrangements-cfas-why-the-government-must-explain-the-alternatives.

    Working my way through the Green Paper proposals (honestly, where’s a robust – but short – Government defence when you need one?) and next the Jackson Report to find out where the Government’s coming from on all of this.

    Getting some of it I think, and the desire to find alternatives solutions but not seeing much by way of creative solutions? So far finding that same old story of a lot of policy and rules and not a lot of psychology being applied.

    Possibly favourite in the Green Paper so far is on Welfare Benefits: “We consider that these issues are of lower objective importance (because they are essentially about financial entitlement)”. As if somehow there was an equivalence between an inability to afford food and one’s employer cutting one’s bonus this year?

    Really, if anyone does know to where to find a good pro-Bill argument I’d be very grateful.

  • Karen Wilkinson 27th Sep '11 - 12:24pm

    Thanks James, somehow missed your post when I searched LVD for legal aid reform.

    Agree completely re community sector. Having worked at the Legal Services Commission 2000-2004 trying to implement “Community Legal Service Partnerships” (there’s a whole ‘nother story) I’m very conscious of how pivotal the nfp agencies are in protecting vulnerable people & how fragile their funding was then, let alone now. Also aware how many lawyers working damn hard for b*gger all money as well.

    Am talking to my MP but obviously I need/need to help him understand both sides of the debate in order to gain a better foothold. Also following up with local activists and ex-colleagues.

    Anything else I can do, please let me know.

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