Teather, Swales and Mulholland urge Government to rethink Legal Aid proposals

Listening to the Commons debate, secured by Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Teather, I felt relieved that I live in Scotland where the measures don’t apply. The big issue that’s hit the headlines is the withdrawal of choice of solicitor, but there are many more problems with it including the one year residence test. As Sarah Teather pointed out, how would representation be secured for a baby who is the subject of care proceedings.

Sarah talked about the effect of the measures on refugees:

Were it not for the intervention of lawyers, many refugees would be homeless at the very time when the state has recognised they are absolutely in need of protection. They will also be unable to challenge other decisions, such as on special educational needs and other forms of care. Young unaccompanied asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable. The Coram Children’s Legal Centre provided an example of a young woman from Eritrea who was just 16. The Home Office accepted that she required refugee status. However, after that happened, as is often the case, her local authority began disputing her age. Were it not for the intervention of lawyers, she would not then have been cared for by the local authority, as she had no chance of proving she had been resident in the UK for 12 months; in fact, she had not been resident in the UK for 12 months, and she had certainly not been lawfully resident in the UK for 12 months.

Those who struggle to make a claim for asylum initially are frequently particularly vulnerable to wrong decisions being made. I include in that category young people, those who have experienced sexual violence, those who are claiming asylum on grounds of sexual orientation and those who have been tortured. Many of these people fail to disclose that in their initial interviews. It is only on subsequent fresh applications for asylum that the right decision is made, because all the information is provided. Once that fresh application is accepted, they become eligible for legal aid. However, they need a lawyer to put in an application, so these people find themselves in a position of not being able to gain the status they deserve. Similarly, victims of human trafficking may need to challenge the identification given to them. Without access to legal aid, they are unable to do that.

Greg Mulholland put forward alternative proposals from Liberal Democrat Lawyers:

Liberal Democrat lawyers have come up with a number of proposals to show that there are different ways of achieving the same aims. These proposals are worthy of consideration, and I hope the Government will consider them. They include lifting the bar on assets subject to a criminal restraint order from being used to fund reasonable legal expenses; removing long and complex fraud cases entirely from the scope of legal aid and instead requiring company directors to take out insurance against the costs of defending in prosecutions arising out of the conduct of their company; the use of penalties which could reimburse legal aid against the Crown Prosecution Service where prosecution conduct leads to wasted costs, long trial extensions and so on; a strategy for decriminalising minor offences and reducing the use of custody through restorative justice alternatives; and making savings from the administrative budget.

Ian Swales added a new dimension to the debate, which a Tory MP later acknowledged had made him think, of the way someone in the criminal justice system could find themselves facing G4S employees at every turn:

One company likely to win work, of course, is G4S, with which the Secretary of State will be familiar from his previous job. G4S’s success in winning work in this sector raises the spectre that a person could be arrested, then have G4S legally representing them at the police station; providing the civilian staff processing them there; transporting them to court; representing them there; owning the court in which that person is tried; tagging them if they are on bail; and, if they are found guilty, transporting them to a G4S prison—oh, and it is quite possible that when they are released, G4S will be in charge of their rehabilitation. The potential perverse incentives in that chain are mind-boggling. I urge the Ministry of Justice to ensure that its contract packages meet its stated aims. The Ministry’s record on contracting is appalling. How will it be different this time?

I end with two questions for the Minister. First, if he or a member of his family were arrested, would he be happy with the new arrangements? Secondly, has he heard the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) express delight that he has just found the cheapest lawyer to fight his case against the Metropolitan police? I doubt it. Equal access to justice is a cornerstone of our society. The Minister has a lot to do to convince this House that that remains an objective of his Department and that it is competent to deliver it.

You can read the whole debate on Hansard here. The Minister, sadly, didn’t seem to get it, but at least acknowledged that the Government had a lot to consider before responding to the consultation in the Autumn.

Sarah Teather concluded by saying that reconsideration was vital for the rule of law:

 Liberal democracies cannot afford to get themselves into a position in which they wield power over a citizen without giving them a right to challenge. It would undermine the rule of law if we afford citizens rights without giving them the means to secure them. I hope that the Government will consider these points carefully and come back with some very different proposals, which they will put to a vote in the House.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Cuts to legal aid to those that can ill afford it were made by the Tories and the Lib Dems ala the votes for the changes and the votes against and Labour amendments in the house of lords so spare us this Lib Dems to the rescue nonesense.

  • Stuart Mitchell 29th Jun '13 - 9:33am

    Following yesterday’s news that the taxpayer is picking up a £250,000 bill for the pleasure of paying Ian Brady’s lawyers for this week’s tribunal, I think most people would support the government in trying to reduce legal aid costs. I don’t accept the premise of this article, which is that quality legal representation is only possible with huge fees.

  • Anthony Hawkes 29th Jun '13 - 11:08am

    With the Home Office loosing appeals at such a high rate, it is very worrying to think that these wrong decisions could not be challenged. There is also the very real possibility that the same company that supplies the solicitor will also supply the jail and deportation service. There must be a conflict of interest here. These proposals are badly thought out (if you can consider this thought) and the amount of money claimed to be saved varies from a very small amount to a loss. Ridiculous.

  • Suzanne Fletcher raises a very concerning tangential point “what about the frightening chain on one global company being in charge of the whole process.”, building on Ian Swales observation about G4s. Currently G4s is a UK HQ’d company, it and it’s UK operations fall wholly under UK law – although it does have corporate interests in North America.

    What happens when, as I suggest is likely, the services provided by G4s are provided by a US HQ’d company that is subject to US laws. Yes today in IT and Internet circles we are talking about the US gaining access to client data held outside of the US by US companies, tomorrow we could be talking about people/foreign nationals and specifically British citizens in their own country constrained to reside within facilities operated by the US company on the behalf of the UK justice system…

  • Helen Dudden 2nd Jul '13 - 9:22am

    Could I make one thing clear, court action in child abduction cases can cost into tens of thousands of pounds.

    You will not get help in an EU country unless you can qualify for “Cross Border” funding.

    Those who have these problems mortgage homes if they have one, if you can’t then you do not have the access to justice. International law is very expensive, end of subject. You have lost the right to your child and justice.

    I am going to a family law conference in a few weeks.

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