Opinion: Lib Dems need to wake up to drastic implications of legal aid cuts

Lib Dem Voice last week featured a brief post on the Coalition’s plans for legal aid reform. But this is an important change that’s been passed with barely a murmur from any Lib Dem MPs, when in fact it strikes at a principle at the heart of the party – civil liberties.

The bill in which this change is contained, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, is currently making its way through the House of Commons. For something that will have fairly drastic effects on many people’s access to justice there has been relatively little talk about it, so I thought it was worth having a slightly closer look at the proposals and why it should concern Lib Dems.

The Ministry of Justice claims that the British legal system is “the most expensive in the world”. The cuts are an effort to reduce the annual legal aid bill of £2.1 billion and will fall in particular on cases involving immigration, employment, debt, welfare benefit, divorce, and welfare benefits among others.

Unsurprisingly, these cuts have been met with significant opposition from many lawyers and civil liberties campaigners. Liberty says that the changes will “ensure that court doors in England and Wales are effectively locked to anyone other than criminal defendants and the super-rich”.

The lawyers agree, arguing that “its proposals will be a hammer blow to some of the most vulnerable people in our society”.

On top of that, the chairman-elect of the Bar Council has criticised the reforms as being potentially damaging to UK business and even threatening to undermine the rule of law.

Regardless of the financial implications of the cuts, and, at £2.1 billion, many might argue the current legal aid system provides value for money, what is at threat here is a principle of UK justice: equal access for all to free and independent legal advice.

This principle was introduced in the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (known colloquially at PACE amongst legal aid lawyers) in response to several high profile miscarriages of justice in the 1970s, such as the Guildford Four.

Some Liberal Democrat MPs such as Tom Brake, are speaking out against the changes; the worry is that they are currently slipping through relatively unnoticed when instead this should be something of a totemic issue for the party. Let’s hope Liberal Democrat peers in the Lords are listening.

* Alex Paul is a Lib Dem member and student activist, originally from West London but now living and studying in Edinburgh. He sits on Liberal Youth Scotland’s executive and studies international relations in hsi spare time.

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  • The proposed cuts to legal aid will be disasterous, not least to those thousands of people facing family breakdown. The plans rely on much more mediation (already used in 90% of cases, and so unlikely to be helpful for the remaining few), and will result in many more litigants in person. Ask anyone who deals with the court system, including those who are not lawyers, and they will tell you cases involving litigants in person (without lawyers) take longer to deal with. Taking longer means they cost more.

    There is already lots of work being done around family law, including the Family Justice Review, due to report this autumn. The government is not waiting for that work to be completed before starting the cuts.

    Additionally, the cuts suggest that only victims of domestic violence would be represented and only in a very narrow set of circumstances which will leave many vulnerable victims of violence without legal assistance. Innocent people will go unrepresented because of allegations having been made against them. And for those women and men whose partners have been violent to them, they may have a lawyer, but they will have to face their attacker in court and be cross-examined by them. The Ministry of Justice say this can be handled by the judge and by the lawyer acting for the victim. This is to miss the point. It is inhumane to require someone who has been attacked by their former partner to be cross-examined by them in court.

    The social cost of these cuts is what really worries me. The Conservatives love to have a go at absent fathers, and then take away the means by which many fathers assert their children’s rights to have a meaningful relationship with both parents. Family breakdown is an awful situation, no matter what the circumstances. These reforms will cost us all dear.

  • Grammar Police 28th Sep '11 - 3:53pm

    Whilst there are definitely criticisms to be made of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, the Law Society have scored a massive own goal in their response to the consultations – by basically suggesting that cuts in the Ministry of Justice should just be pushed onto other departments. Meanwhile, suggesting further taxes on alcohol have just enabled ministers to ignore their proposals as ridiculous.

    The Citizens’ Advice Bureaux have been much more effective in achieving emergency funding from the Cabinet Office for advice provision.

  • The legal aid “reforms” will mean sick and disabled people, who are already treated like crap by the DWP & ATOS, will no longer be entitled to legal help when appealing the (very often) wrong decisions of ATOS/DWP. Without this legal aid, many people who are too ill to walk up stairs let alone work, will have no way to appeal their decisions and will further isolate and push sick people into poverty.

    This is not how our most vulnerable members of society should be treated, but the Tories of course don’t care. It’s up to LibDems, again, to try and stop another nasty cut from the weakest.

    Remember Cameron’s words, said on April 10th, 2010:

    “Now we are a compassionate and tolerant and generous nation. To people who cannot work, to people who are disabled, we will ALWAYS help you.”

    This bill will do the opposite of what Cameron promised.

  • James Sandbach 29th Sep '11 - 9:16am

    Well said Alex – one of the drastic implications is the closure of CABx and Law Centres across the country as ALL their legal aid funding (all, not some!) is being cut. In other words we’re dishing community advice organisations, which is a bad move for our credibility to be about “Community Politics”..MPs, Councillors, Campaigners all rely on these local organisations as partners in casework and campaigns

    I’m not against legal aid cuts per se – it’s a sad fact of of our times that public service budgets are reducing across the board. But the MoJ have not constructed a balanced package here – all the cuts have been frontloaded onto family and civil legal advice (around a 70% cut) – by cutting out all social welfare advice (employment, housing, immigration, debt, benefits issues) – nearly all delivered by not for profit advice agencies, and advice/advocacy for non-violent relationship breakdowns (known as ‘private family law’), mostly delivered by your typical high street firm.

    Criminal legal aid – which is in fact where the budget has nearly doubled over the past decade is not being cut back at all, and the biggest problems in the system – the £675 million spent on just a handful of very high cost cases is not being tackled at all. There’s a lot of fat in the system in criminal legal aid such as QC fees – contrast those rates that with what CAB advice get (less than £200 for resolving an issue and usually keeping it out of court) – yet it’s the civil fees that are also getting a 10% cut on top of the scope restrictions.

    Because the reforms are so lopsided – this pretty much means the end of civil legal aid; civil legal aid will only be available if someone’s human rights are being abused. Whilst it’s good that we’re at least protecting legal aid when basic human rights are abused, surely minimal compliance with human rights law should be considered to be the floor rather than the ceiling of what we expect from a proper civil justice scheme.

    I suspect that if there are concessions made in the Lords they will be as a response to the demands of the big legal lobbies (ie Bar Council and Law Society) on issues such as clinical negligence and family law advocacy – the community sector though stands to be wiped off the map…

    And the impact – well it’s there in black and white in the MoJ’s impact assessments – 650,000 less people (all amongst the most poorest and vulnerable in terms of demograhics) in will receive civil aid – the impact assessments flag up consequences such as reduced social cohesion, increased criminality, more unfair outcomes, and increased costs for other departments

  • Thanks to everyone for their comments. Its very disappointing that, for the sake of what are relatively small budget cuts compared to some others, we risk losing a valuable service. As Patrick Torsney and James Sandbach said, this is going to fall hardest on those who have no other access to representation – such as those involved in ATOS cases. I hope that significant changes will be made in the Lords to negate the worst effects of the changes, but I fear otherwise.

  • James Sandbach 30th Sep '11 - 1:07pm

    See https://www.libdemvoice.org/tag/legal-aid for other threads on this

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