The principles of British fairness, the rule of law and Magna Carta are at stake

Jonny Mulligan runs through the reasons to not trust the government about LASPO, the bill which harms British justice more than anything in the last 800 years.


Will the legal aid, sentencing and punishment of offenders (LASPO) bill make it through the House of Lords, asks Jonny Mulligan of the Sound Off for Justice campaign

The government’s defeat in the House of Lords is encouraging for campaigners who oppose the cuts in legal aid. The health and social care bill in particular, and the welfare reform bill probably, have had more government bench opposition than the LASPO Bill.

This week the bill has its days three & four debate in the House of Lords. The focus will be on which areas of law will be ‘in scope’ – covered by legal aid – and it addresses the areas of family law, children, the elderly, women who are the victims of domestic violence, social welfare and clinical negligence.

The LASPO bill is the lynch pin at the centre of the whole welfare debate. If your health and social welfare are going to be denied you need a way to appeal. If because of the cuts in legal aid you have no way to do this then you have no way of protecting your rights.

The debate is fast coming down to the simple issue of fairness. Will this coalition government of conservative and liberals protect the idea of Britain being a fair society where every citizen has, rights, access to justice and a fair hearing at a court or tribunal?

Ripping up Magna Carta

Today the evidence is clear that the government will not save money from these cuts. They have had over a year to make their case and provide the evidence put they have failed. Now that this argument has been stripped from them one wonders why they are so committed to forcing through this wretched bill. The cuts in legal aid will impact the most vulnerable, women, children and the elderly.

The changes in ‘no win no fee’ will hit middle income families and businesses in middle england. There is no compensation culture, as Lord Young’s report for the prime minister has clarified and which directly contradicts the claims made by the insurance industry and their lobby group.

The removal of these arguments means the debate is simply about the constitution, access to justice, and the rule of law.

If the government is successful in pushing this bill through, it will essentially rip up Magna Carta. This enshrines the British principle of ‘fairness’ and the right to ‘access to justice’ , and has done since 1215. This principle is enshrined in Magna Carta.

The rule of law is a fundamental principle of a democracy, which has been very well defined by Lord Bingham in his book of the same name.

1. Clear limits to the power of the state (and the ability of citizens to challenge it)

2. No one is above the law (including government ministers that are trying to ignore, take away or change the law, even on deficit reduction grounds)

3. There must be protection for the rights of the individual (if they are threatened, then they must have the ability to defend themselves)

Within this context this government is doing something that no other government would have ever tried or considered. They are using the cuts to deny millions of people access to justice. It is a fundamental assault on the principle of the rule of law and Magna Carta.

This is why peers and politicians must speak out and take action against this bill. In many ways this is not a party political debate. It is a constitutional and ‘state of the nation’ discussion. If the government are successful the LASPO bill has the potential to change significantly the society and the country in which we live.

The government needs to decide if it is going to sacrifice the rights of the individual and access to justice to pursue its political objectives. If the argument was about saving money and reducing the deficit, then it would adopt the alternative plans laid out by Law Society and Sound Off for Justice which will save more than the government target of £350 million.

The government is isolated, alone and working against its own big society.

The minister for justice, Ken Clarke, gave the first reading of the bill on the 21st of June 2011. The impact assessment that the government published with the bill stated that if the bill is passed the results will include ‘reduced social cohesion’, ‘increased criminality’, ‘reduced business and economic efficiency’ and increased costs for other departments.

Today he is rumoured to be facing a rebelllion on his own benchs and from some of his cabinet members from the Thatcher era.

In June 2011 the government claimed that they will save over £350 million from the cuts in legal aid to help the MOJ target of £2 billion in savings. Today the analysis shows that this claim is based on a false economy and it is pure fantasy. The cuts will cost society, the feeble and the taxpayer more than they will save.

The government have tried to claim that they will continue to protect women, children, the elderly, victims of domestic violence and clinical negligence. However succesive independent reports and submissions to the government and parliament indicate that this notion is highly improbable and the government must present concreate evidence that they will achieve this objective.

Today over thirty one organisations and individuals have spoken against or are lining up against the bill including:

Baroness Hale and other high court judges, The Bar Council, The Law Society, Liberal Democrat Lawyers, the Womens Institute, Justice for All, The Howard League for Justice, Rights of Women, Gingerbread, Action against Medical Accidents (AvMA), Refugee Council, JustRights, NSPCC, Shelter, Netmums, Eaves, Revolution, Citizens Advice and many more.

Can they all be wrong? Are they all acting out of ‘self-interest’ or do they know and understand the situation better than the MOJ? Is it time for the government to stop, listen, engage and understand where the real savings can be made and how we can protect the British principle of fairness and ‘access to justice’?

What has been striking about the debate in the Lords is the common pattern almost every single time.

An amendment is moved. A range of peers from all sides of the House speaks in favour of it. Nobody at all speaks against it. The minister says the bill is fine as is. The mover of the amendment withdraws and says this will definitely come back at report stage if the government does not give ground.

The government is not listening to the opposition, its own peers, the joint committee on human rights, or the constitution committee, all of whom have said to unanimous agreement that there are significant things wrong with this bill that must be put right.

It is shockingly arrogant and complacent. Lord Bach was so frustrated that at one point he was “tempted” to move an amendment to a vote, because of the obstinacy of the MoJ in the face of such cross-party and informed opposition.

At one point, Lord McNally commented disparagingly on the number of reports that come out at each reading of the bill.

“The Bill is beginning to suffer from what I might call report fatigue, in that almost weekly a report comes out, usually sponsored by very interested parties, which is then quoted around the House.

“I would be the last to deny the right of groups to commission reports and to use their findings, but it is not necessary for those to be treated as holy writ. They are studies; we receive them, read them and take notice of them.” (Page 34 of the transcript)

If the Ministry had produced a shred of evidence to rebut the findings of these reports, this criticism would not ring so hollow.

Now is the time that we must remind the government and peers that there is an alternative. The Sound off for Justice proposal will save the government and the taxpayer more money than the governments cuts.

It will protect ‘access to justice’ for the most vulnerable and middle income people in our society. It will protect and maintain the british principle of fairness and Magna Carta. If you believe these are worth protecting then please support the campaign and sign the petition.

See also:

Disability minister ignorant on how legal aid cuts affecting disabled peopleAlex Hern, January 10th 2012

Osborne’s slashing of legal aid: Another false economyDr Graham Cookson, January 10th 2012

The missing millions in the legal aid cutsAlex Hern, November 2nd 2011

Exposed: The legal aid minister’s £97,000 conflict of interestAlex Hern, October 11th 2011

Tory MP: People opposed to legal aid cuts are “irresponsible and unhelpful”Jonny Mulligan, October 5th 2011

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