The Independent View: Legal aid cuts – a compromise too far

In the week of the JCHR evidence session with Chris Grayling, the Justice Alliance has provided Simon Hughes MP with testimonials from over 100 organisations under the banner ‘Justice Deserves Lib Dems Stay Legal Aid Proposals’. The Testimonials represent a cross-section of society from The Howard League for Penal Reform, Liberty, Reprieve, Justice, to the British Tamil Forum, Kurdish Community Centre, René Cassin, Unite the Union, The Children’s Society and Women Against Rape.

As Liberty say in their testimonial:

UK justice should be open to all, with everyone having the opportunity to refute an accusation of criminal behaviour, challenge treatment by the state, or enforce rights and freedoms in court. Liberty believes cuts to legal aid will make it harder for many poor and vulnerable individuals to have their voice heard in complex and serious legal processes. The Government has an obligation to ensure that the law applies equally to everyone; the proposed cuts are a dereliction of that duty and will have consequences for the whole of society, not just those directly affected.

Simon Hughes MP, meeting the Justice Alliance at Lib Dem HQ, asked for submissions prior to discussing legal aid proposals with Nick Clegg, Lord McNally and Tom Brake. He stated he was not persuaded the government has the right to introduce the ‘Residence Test’ and discussed the importance Judicial Review, referring to the success by residents of Lewisham challenging cuts to Lewisham Hospital.

We understand Mr Hughes’ meeting has not yet taken place. We believe that there is no mandate for the proposals in the face of the near unanimous vote for a stay to the legal aid proposals made at Conference. We ask for you to join Justice Alliance in calling on the leadership to stop these invidious cuts.

Councillor Lester Holloway Sutton North Ward told Justice Alliance

Justice in a fairer society means the scales of justice are balanced. Cuts in legal aid places the gold bullions of privilege in one scale. Injustice breaks the spirit of those who are alone and see a whole team ranged against them, a much smaller goal to aim at and the referee wearing the oppositions colours. The spirit of the preamble to our party’s constitution runs counter to this so let’s stand up against it.

Julian Huppert MP has previously urged that legal aid should not merely be about the financial savings involved, “The test is about the justice it delivers and the benefits it gives us all.”

Former Liberal Democrat Greg Foxsmith raised the issue of resignations:

I have since been asked many times whether I regret resigning Lib Dem membership over Secret Courts. I do, but only for one reason. Having already left, I can’t now resign over Legal Aid Cuts. But others can, and will do so if, despite the Conference Vote, and excellent lobbying by Lib Dem Lawyers, the Leadership ignores its Policy, members and supporters, and does not stop these legal aid cuts.

* Millie Graham Wood is a legal officer at Privacy International.

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This entry was posted in The Independent View.


  • You may be right, Joe (I haven’t had the opportunity to say that very often!) but you are really opening a can of worms there. Before you know where you are you’ll have Farage and the UKIPpers all over you mouthing off about “Magna Carta” etc.

  • But Caracatus, the whole process could be made clearer with either an adversarial or an inquisitorial system. I just mention UKIP because of the system of English Law based on case law which reaches back into tradition many centuries old, and would be contrasted with the system used by many continental European countries. When you compare the relatively minor changes involved in accepting a “political Europe”, the change of legal system would amount to a revolution.

  • On inquisitorial v adversarial systems – the National Audit Office compiled figures on European spending on courts, prosecution and legal aid and the bill in England and Wales was average: (check out table on p.39)
    So its not the answer to simply switch to an inquistorial system. I think the courts are being forced into that position as they face more litigants in person but that can only increase the costs in the justice system. People need lawyers for so many reasons – the law is hard for a start! And if I was arrested or in a case involving my loved ones, I would want someone to represent me and take an objective view at a stressful and emotional time. All the self help booklets in the world can’t put you in the same position as a well funded opponent like the state, who will have a human representative to put their case at its best.

  • Melanie Harvey 25th Nov '13 - 7:32pm

    the biggest killers of justice is not legal aid alone summary judgements and permissions to appeal make it so those having to go it without help can get blocked and cut off at the pass. It is cause for concern that people are being prevented from access to the court without vast sums of money or a law degree, though the later should not stop anything as ignorance of the law is no defence.

  • What is most frustrating about all the cuts that are being put in place is that fact that they are unlikely to reduce costs, and in most cases predicted to INCREASE the overall costs of administering justice in the UK – take a look at just one of many arguments against the ‘savings’ myth here – It’s an ideological battle to disarm the poor veiled thinly in the necessity of ‘austerity’.

  • James Sandbach 26th Nov '13 - 11:59am

    I have posted extensively about the debacle of Govt’s legal aid reforms before, which has become a toxic issue for the Party, and drafted many of the conference motions; it’s not too late for Govt to row back on the highly discriminatory “residence test” if LibDems hold firm on this ..but there also needs to be a more mature debate on the justice system and the role of legal aid. Yes there are reforms that should be pursued to reduce costs and complexity in the legal system and make it more accessible for the public, but it is important to understand the fundamentals here – Courts and tribunals make decisions on the basis of what the law is not what they might like it to be or just taking a considered view of the facts; Courts are quite different from Ombudsman or other dispute resolution systems and it is simply naive to suppose that Courts of law should be lawyer-free zones…in interpreting and applying the law the Courts actually make law and all law-making (whether legislative or judicial) is complex and intricate stuff, so whatever people think of the legal professions they play a huge role in protecting individuals’ civil liberties. Contrary to popular mythology there are actually very few lawyers in Parliament at the moment so not much understanding in politics about the role of lawyers in society in maintaining the delicate constitutional balance between individual rights and executive power. Yes there things that can be done for example to divert less serious problems out of court (why should courts be routinely used for recovery of small debts, council tax etc or be used to deal with low level crime that could be dealt with by restorative justice panels), without denying the right to day in court or final appeal if that’s the only way a legal problem can de dealt with, there also needs to be much better public legal education about the system explained in accessible language and yes there are also reforms needed within the legal professions themselves to arrive at more cost effective ways and models of doing business – but ditching legal aid for so many cases in the system or dumbing the service down to the lowest possible quality is not the way forwards. There are certainly challenges in managing a scarce budget for the justice system that was already under pressure pre-austerity, but it doesn’t help that the Ministry of Justice fails so badly in initiating any wider policy conversations about the justice system and engaging the legal professions in difficult policy-making decisions – there’s little practical expertise in the MoJ on the effective management of legal services, and they are forever steam-rolling out proposals (eg price competitive tendering and unsustainable fee rates) which they know are unworkable and will simply get legal professionals backs up

  • Richard Boyd 26th Nov '13 - 4:53pm

    Being member of the Employment Tribunals, in London, since 2000 I am depressed by the change in the system that was, orignanallly an informal place where law and real life experience merged to provide quick and cheap dispute resolution. Over the past decade we have seen more legal reps, on both sides, rising litigation costs, and now reduced
    access for the individual litigant. Pay before you seek justice, and, if you win your chance of getting any compensation award actually paid is 50%. A claimant on low wages, unjustl y sacked, seeking holiday pay/notice pay etc will have to
    lay out more in court fees than the claim. Many unscrupulous employers avoid paying costs and compensation by going into liquidation and pheonix-like start trading again as a new company within days. What happened?
    Richard Boyd OBE DL

  • “… when people say something is an ideological battle against the poor, I generally assume they have no real arguments because I find that one much too difficult to believe.”

    The comment said “an ideological battle to disarm the poor”.

    Why should it be at all difficult to believe that powerful people have vested interests in reducing the opportunity of poor people to challenge them by legal means? Surely that’s the most natural thing in the world.

  • Joe, I invite you to read the minutes of the Justice Secretary’s oral evidence to the Justice Select Commitee on 3rd July; he himself admits that the cuts are, at least in part, ideological –

  • widescreen2010 28th Nov '13 - 2:10pm

    Well, turkeys wouldn’t vote for Christmas, would they?

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