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.

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