The coalition had a tough fortnight over its proposals to cut legal cut. And with a backbench debate scheduled for this Thursday, and the minister in front of the Justice Committee next month, it’s unlikely to get much easier.
Russell Hargrave is a spokesperson for Save Justice
The coalition had a tough fortnight over its proposals to cut legal aid. And with a backbench debate scheduled for this Thursday, and the minister in front of the Justice Committee next month, it’s unlikely to get much easier.
The government has finished consulting on plans which would force further deep cuts to the availability of free legal advice. This is even while people are still reeling from the initial tranche of cuts pushed through parliament last year.
The Ministry of Justice is trying to stay robust about its plans, but it is increasingly clear that the cabinet is far from convinced that these are fair or can command the trust of voters.
Attorney general Dominic Grieve couldn’t bring himself to publicly support the plans. Nick Clegg has openly cast doubt on them – as have the former shadow home secretary David Davies; as well as influential Tory backbencher Dominic Raab.
All this has come at the end of an awkward few weeks for justice minister Chris Grayling and his deputy Lord McNally.
Earlier in June, thousands of legal aid lawyers turned out to protest noisily outside the Ministry. Days later, the government’s own barristers published an unprecedented attack on the “unconscionable” proposals, which they say are likely to “create an underclass” completely unable to access the courts.
The Mail on Sunday, of all outlets, took the government to task for using dodgy data to scaremonger over legal aid.
The government has sometimes looked rather edgy in response. Interviewed for Radio 4’s Law in Action, Lord McNally dodged most of the substantive questions about access to justice and collapsed instead into complaints about ‘hysterical’ lawyers.
When he addressed a Question-Style debate on the cuts last week, hosted by the Bar Council, there were fewer pejoratives but not much more clarity. The minister explained that he had been advised “not to buckle” over the proposals, while returning over and again to the party line that, of course, no decisions have yet been made.
There were also moments of candour. If legal aid which exists precisely to support the very poorest in our society is cut away, McNally acknowledged, this will inevitably “hit and hurt” the most vulnerable among us.
So who might these people be?
They will include someone bewildered and held in custody on suspicion of a crime they didn’t commit – who finds not an experienced, highly-qualified solicitor whom they choose and whom they trust, but a lawyer plucked by the government from the cut-price market of potential contractors like G4S or Eddie Stobart.
They will include someone trafficked into the UK and exploited, told by the Home Office that they are lying about what they have been through, and then unable to find a lawyer willing to work for free to challenge the often arbitrary decisions of the Home Office.
And they will include a child left homeless due to unfair and unfounded decisions by social services, who turns to a lawyer for help only to be told that their immigration status means that their legal rights cannot be enforced . Thinking the public authorities will help them, they will in fact be powerless to challenge any abuse of power by those authorities.
The minister’s offer to meet with Save Justice for further talks on this is very welcome. The people on the sharp end of these cuts consist of some of the people in society who are already pushed to the margins, out of sight of politicians and policy-makers.
It is the right of those people to challenge abuses of state power that is at stake. It is time to bring them squarely back into view.
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