Cuts to legal aid will see people priced out of justice

The truth is we will all be worse off if these proposals become law. The prospect of legal intervention is the surest way of securing a society where respect for human rights, equality and due process guides the behaviour of our decision-makers. This botched attempt to get justice on the cheap would put justice out of reach for all but the most powerful.

By Rachel Robinson, policy officer at Liberty

Our legal system can seem lofty and abstract for those lucky enough not to need recourse to its protection. Lawyers work with mysteriously technical language and an airless court room is somewhere no non-lawyer hopes to spend time.

But this impression is an illusion. When created, legal aid was envisioned as one of the core pillars of our welfare state, standing firmly alongside healthcare and education.

This is exactly as it should be – for our rights and freedoms to be meaningful, they have to be practically enforceable. Effective access to justice is a cornerstone of liberal democracy.

But savage attacks on our legal aid system keep coming. In April, cuts to civil legal aid put publically funded legal advice and representation beyond the reach of vast swathes of the population. Funding has been scrapped for entire areas, with the majority of family, immigration, employment, debt, welfare benefits and education cases now outside the system’s scope.

Society’s most vulnerable will be hardest hit – children; families struggling with debt; refugees who’ve fled persecution and seek reunion with family members. Disabled people, who account for nearly two thirds of legally-aided clients in the welfare system, will be disproportionately affected.

With fundamental rights frequently on the line in these areas, the cuts will severely weaken human rights protections for us all as breaches go unchallenged because victims cannot afford the fight.

The law’s technicality also makes do-it-yourself justice nigh on impossible. This is just one of the reasons the cuts are sure to prove a false economy in the long run – cases will drag on as litigants-in-person without the requisite skills and experience struggle to negotiate maze-like proceedings.

The next round of cuts couple further assaults on our beleaguered civil justice system with disturbing plans for criminal legal aid. Access to civil legal aid is to depend on a residency test that is arbitrary, unfair and likely unlawful. It would create an underclass of individuals – including abandoned migrant and trafficked children – uniquely vulnerable to neglect and abuse.

Criminal legal fees are to be cut across the sector, with fixed charges replacing graduated fees dependent on case progress. Private companies which are not traditional law firms will be invited to bid for legal aid contracts. Procurements will be on price alone, meaning providers will compete on cost not quality, and people will no longer have any choice over who represents them.

This price-obsessed philosophy could hardly be less appropriate for sophisticated legal services. All incentive to offer an above average service will be lost and standards will inevitably plummet. It will heap impossible burdens on practitioners and the harmonisation of fees could leave defendants feeling pressured to plead guilty.

What happens every day in our criminal courts affects millions and squeezing out decent professionals will undermine fair trials for defendants and victims alike. These reforms aren’t about cutting the Champagne budget of ‘fat-cat lawyers’ – it’s not unusual for a legal aid lawyer to earn the equivalent of minimum wage at times.

And, though the plans will inflict pain on these over-worked, undervalued professionals, those who will suffer most are the people who will be priced out of justice – disabled people, children, refugees, those with crippling debts, crime victims and vulnerable people.

The truth is we will all be worse off if these proposals become law. The prospect of legal intervention is the surest way of securing a society where respect for human rights, equality and due process guides the behaviour of our decision-makers. This botched attempt to get justice on the cheap would put justice out of reach for all but the most powerful.

Liberty’s legal director James Welch will be speaking at the Demonstation to Save Justice outside the Ministry of Justice tomorrow.

17 Responses to “Cuts to legal aid will see people priced out of justice”

  1. LB

    The middle class are already price out, and you don’t care about them.

    It’s not legal aid that is the issue. It’s the cost of the law that’s the issue.

    So lets have class actions. Then when councils take money illegally for parking, we can get redress by banding together to screw the thieves (Keeping the money obtained illegally is theft).

    Then we people who have had relatives killed in the NHS (40,000 year), are told to go home and sort their lives out, we (the NHS), won’t pay you, they can do something about it. Getting together collectively means they stand a chance of getting the 20 bn a year compensation they are due. [500,000 each, about the same as the payoff for a manager]

    It is lawyers. It is judges. it’s the stupid rules. That’s driven the cost up.

  2. Levinas

    Im beginning to think that these legal aid ‘reforms’ as with the rest of this shyster coalition government ‘reforms’ are less to do with saving money and more to subjugate the common masses for the pleasure of the moneyed elite. After all was it not one of this governments depts. that stated, ‘When we say jump, they will jump.’

  3. Sparky

    This is entirely the fault of the last Labour government.

    Legal aid bill 1997 1.5bn 2005 2bn
    It did nothing to stop patently wealthy criminals from abusing the system.
    It did nothing to stop Muslim lawyer firms growing rich off high profile terrorism trials, which all, incidentally, ended in convictions.
    Between 1997 and 2006, Labour introduced 3000 new criminal offences.

    Socialism. It increases state control of people’s lives and erodes personal freedom through a misguided sense of paternalistic self-righteousness. It taxes the hell of people to raise money, then it squanders it. Then it tries to blame someone else.

  4. blarg1987

    Bear in mind taxes would go up or services would be cut to cover these additional expenditure leading to further costs and litigation actions as councils and NHS struggle even more resulting in more mistkaes / accidents etc, so which is the lesser of two evils?

  5. LB

    Taxes would only go up, if they carried on being negligent. Under the current scheme the victim pays. How moral is that?

    Under the system where those causing the problem pays, there is huge incentive not to cause the problem. That means better medical care, lower payouts.

    The current system, victim pay, is the evil one.

  6. blarg1987

    Negligance is a factor but if they are under resourced, then taking money out of the system will only lead to things getting worse again, which is the lesser of two evils?

    Those cauing the problems may be closer then you think, i.e. the elctorate. I could potentially see a future where Judges make many things legal requirements which would limit politcians on political ideology which would resutl in either taxes, or costs of service provision by private provider going up, if that is the ideology you believe in.

  7. LB

    So you think the victim should pay.

    My ideas are far simpler.

    1. Politicians have to tell the truth. Same standard as in a court of law, or they are personally liable.

    2. The electorate get the vote on issues.

    If the electorate say, sorry, we are going to cut taxes to 20%, they have that right. Politicians then have to cut their cloth to fit.

    Far better have the electorate decide than unelected judges, and politicians who are liars. For example over the pension debts.

  8. blarg1987

    So then by that logic, would the electorate be held accountable and go to jail? If they say cut taxes by 20% and people are advised and warned such drastic tax cuts may result in service cuts that costs lives then end up doing so, should the electorate pay, directly the financial cost throuhg a tax or through the party they voted for by having whoeever they voted for made public so they pay towards compensation?

  9. blarg1987

    Woudl that mean that say 40% of people voted for lower taxes and that party got into power, but were warned before hand such tax cuts cost lives, and end up doing so, would that 40% be prosecuted or have to pay out of their own income any compensation that is incurred to the victim?

  10. LB

    Nothing about the party getting into power. The electorate decides.

    Given its democracy, and there are no lies, its not a problem.

    Plus with the 50% extra income, its now your choice. If you want to give to the third world, you can. If you want to spend it on your health care you can. There are no victims.

  11. LB

    They have all that money to spend on their health care. It’s their choice.

  12. LB

    So why no comments on making the victim pay?

  13. blarg1987

    But what about things like, Police, fire, armed forces, infastructure maintenance etc, it would be inpractical to have a up to you pay system as no one would end up paying and then people would complain they were not getting a service, just like with alot of prrivate roads.

  14. LB

    By the way, on the compensation issue. If the medical staff are negligent, even under what I propose, they are still negligent for their avoidable deaths. Not the public. No more than you are resposible for the Soham murders.

    And if they get no services, the get no services. They have made the choice.

    The problem now is that you get no services or reduced services, but increases in prices, and you have no control over it.

    For example, let me repeat the state pension deal.

    If a 26K a year worker had invested their NI, they would have had a fund of 627K. State pension costs 152K. One way of looking at that is you’ve been over charged by 475K.

    Now if a private company had done that you would be screaming blue murder, but you think its a great idea if the state does it. Does that mean you’re receiving this money?

  15. LB

    Well one error. 50%+1 would have to vote to cut taxes. There is no party involved.

    Or are you saying you want a policy where 32% vote to screw other people, and that means it becomes law?

  16. Andrea Borman

    Yes I saw this link posted by Karl on In A Flap forums where I posted my thread. They did not say there would be no legal aid at all. Only that there will be more restriction on who can get legal aid. So people on low income and welfare benefits will still be able to see a lawyer for free. But they won’t cover as wide a range of cases as before.

  17. LB

    A strong need for class actions. People should be allowed to in effect unionize and sue as a collective.

    NHS is a prime target, and that will hopefully compensate the victims and give the push to cut the huge number of avoidable deaths each year.

    It gives scope to sue the state over the pensions fraud. Won’t get their money back, its long gone, but it might prevent the state from making the Ponzi worse.

    Parking is another one. Illegal application of parking laws, and keeping the cash is theft. That will sort them out for a bit. A good example of the sort of behaviour they exhibit, is they have exempted the parking people from any parking laws. They park up on double yellows to have chats, (not working), get their lunch etc. It’s time the public screwed them over.

    For cost reasons all this needs collective action.

    Notice how all the unions of people, from trades unions, to fathers for justice, are all about the citizen against the state.

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