Tribunal justice – do our Parliamentary Parties ‘get’ it?

Brighton Spring Conference unanimously supported a motion on justice in social security tribunals – a critical issue as welfare reform begins recalibrating everyone’s social security rights and entitlement, and specialist legal aid advice to challenge decisions disappears. This is the fifth time Conference has debated and challenged the Government’s legal aid reforms. In Sheffield 2011, I summated an access to justice motion criticising the Ministry of Justice’s outline proposals, in Birmingham, autumn 2011 and again in Brighton 2012 I proposed amendments to welfare reform motions calling to reinstate legal aid for welfare rights, whilst in Gateshead an amendment I put to Julian Huppert’s civil liberties motion calling for “continued provision” and the scope of civil legal aid to cover “help and assistance in categories of law where the issues raised are of substantial importance” didn’t even need to be debated as everyone agreed.

As with the secret courts debate, this issue is all about a fair justice process and the scales of justice not being fundamentally skewed in one particular direction when you’re up against a powerful protagonist (ie the state). A fair process is impossible if you don’t have access to the “evidence” in closed proceedings (CMPs) within civil cases, or if you don’t have access to specialist legal advice to interpret the evidence and the adjudicatory process. The issues raised by secret courts and abolition of legal aid for most civil matters are two sides of the same coin, except that the latter affects 650,000 cases annually whilst the former affects only a small handful of (albeit hugely important) cases. So I can well empathise with Jo Shaw’s resignation, recalling the utter despair I felt last spring when the day after Conference voted to retain legal aid for key categories of law, I watched from the gallery as our Peers voted to remove legal aid from these same categories. Even the rebellions led by Dee Doocey and Tom Brake on the issue of social security appeals, came to nothing as the concessions they secured were rescinded in the final legislation and subsequent regulations.

Rather than leaving or giving up, all this has re-enforced my determination to continue advocating liberal democratic principles of equal access to justice. But justice is an area where Liberal Democrats in Government are getting things badly wrong:- a new illiberal class of closed civil procedures introduced; courts, CABx, law centres and legal aid practices closing across our communities; tribunal fees and qualifiers introduced; employment rights curtailed; bailiff powers and civil court powers to impose home threatening charging orders increased; civil claimants exposed to greater cost-risks even when they win, social problems such as squatting have been criminalised, and police powers increased. Even the much vaunted “rehabilitation revolution” in criminal justice now appears a bit of a chimera for making community sentences as tough and humiliating as possible with extra fines thrown in, and for the handover of much of the Probation Service to the private sector – meanwhile prison numbers remain stubbornly high.

* James Sandbach is a former PPC, a member of the Executive of the Liberal Democrat Lawyers, works for Citizens Advice and campaigned for the Justice4All coalition.

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7 Comments

  • Hear hear, James. Sorry I have nothing more constructive at present to add, but also as a former PPC I cannot but agree. This is all extraordinarily disheartening, and rather than trying to create the “new politics”, that echoing Nick Clegg and others campaigning for a Lib Dem victory, we are as a Government constantly turning back the clock to a crueller more divisive time. This was NOT why I joined the Liberals, and signed up to the merger that became the Liberal Democrats.

  • I think they get it, they have just decided it’s not important… and that is far worse.

  • James, I too have little to add, but I think that is because you have said everything which needs to be said.

    What frustrates me is the sneers being lobbied against those of us in the legal profession, as if we are just self-serving leeches. I am sorry, but I do not know a single lawyer who choose a career in legal aid, which did so for the pay. If I had wanted to be rich, then I would have taken up Company law.

    What further frustrates me is that even those in Government who do appear to want to actually be progressive do not have any appreciation of the reality of this situation. The defence that ‘alternative advice is available’ rings hollow when we consider that organisations like CAB cannot legally offer advice in areas like Immigration law, even if they so wishes to. Moreover, the ‘no-win no-fee’ scheme, as it likes to erroneously call itself, does nothing to stop frivolousness cases because at the end of the day many claimants now, rightly or (actually) wrongly, believe that they have nothing to lose by going to court because if they lose it ‘costs them nothing’. This means these cases just leave the claimants with less money and defendants with crushing liability bills that are far more detrimental to the economy than government spending on justice and legal aid.

    Furthermore, the idea that having fewer Court Cases is a desirable objective is question when we look at the decay in the development of Legal principle that it has caused in areas where a lack of access to justice has caused a drop in the number of cases going to court.

    All we can do is keep lobbying and hope that eventually it will get through.

  • Jeremy Ambache 16th Mar '13 - 7:48am

    Dear James – Well done on keep your campaigning on this issue over the years! ….. but surely the conclusion must be that the Lib Dem front bench don’t get it! As you know this was one reason why I left the Liberal Democrats.

  • Suzanne Fletcher 16th Mar '13 - 9:44am

    Thanks for putting it all down together. Justice is fundamental to Liberal Democrat principles. As someone above says, they just “don’t get it”, and still seem to think that welfare benefit claimants can take cases to tribunals themselves, and seem to think that well heeled lawyers are making a packet out of preparing and going to tribunals. As a CAB volunteer, it is the specialist welfare benefit advisors that I work with, and they are certainly not well heeled.
    They also “don’t get it” on the way that at CAB, anyway, (cannot speak for elsewhere) they actually save money to the DWP by getting many issues resolved without the need for a tribunal hearing. to say nothing of the expenses that are building up for the future in health and other costs associated with destitution and family break down.

  • Helen Dudden 18th Mar '13 - 10:05am

    Is this the true colours of being a liberal in this day and age.

    Without justice there is no human rights.

  • James Sandbach 18th Mar '13 - 11:49am

    Thanks for the comments – the disappointment is felt particulaly accutely in the justice sector as for the past 15 years pre-coalition, the Party went out of its way to cultivate the support of liberal lawyers, civil liberties groups, human rights organisations, equalities campaigners, advice agencies, criminal justice/prison reformers and other justice movements and civil society advocacy bodies, presenting itself as the Party for them with underpinning and liberal values – but by defending current policies it has fallen well short on it’s commitment to human rights.

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