The mayor, the judge, some celebs and the PM's brother

This week will be crucial in the fight to save legal aid as the bill slashing its budget and restricting its scope enters its final stage in the House of Commons.  Any objective, rational assessment of the provisions in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (LASPO) would surely come to the conclusion that this was a disaster on its way to happening.  Unfortunately, being objective and rational isn’t a requirement for being in government.

And so, unless something can stop the LASPO juggernaut, many of the poorest and most vulnerable in society, including victims of domestic violence, those struggling with debt, patients who have suffered at the hands of negligent doctors, people who’ve had their phones hacked and children of divorcing parents, will see their voices silenced as their access to justice is swept away on a wave of frenzied budget cutting

I suppose it’s actually a bit unreasonable to ask for the government to be objective, after all, I’m not.  So I thought, rather than me set out my wholly subjective objections to the bill, I would find some unusual opponents, to prove it isn’t just those working in the legal profession or mad old lefties who don’t understand anything about budgets who think it’s a bad idea to yank the rug out from under people’s feet.

Exhibit number one, and probably my favourite, is the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.  It would probably be more exciting if this were the only thing on which he had ever opposed the government, but it’s nonetheless an indication of the depth of the concerns over the bill.  In July, the Mayor submitted written evidence to the LASPO public bill committee calling for wider criteria for domestic violence cases, otherwise most women experiencing domestic violence would no longer be able to get legal aid.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the government hasn’t taken any notice of Boris on this one.  Only today a report by the National Federation of Women’s Institutes has warned more women living in abusive relationships will be killed or driven to suicide if the government refuses to widen the eligibility criteria.

More surprisingly, the Mayor isn’t the only Conservative politician speaking out.  Anna Soubry MP told the Huffington Post in September that she and some backbench colleagues were concerned about how the changes will affect women, in particular those going through divorce who will no longer get legal aid: ‘We’re not happy about the changes in legal aid…we’re fearful they will affect women who are separating from husbands.  We’ve identified that as a problem’.

Helen Grant, another Conservative MP and a legal aid solicitor, wrote in the Guardian in February that she was ‘mindful of the justice department’s duty to tackle its budgetary burdens, but this goes beyond its remit. It is also about families and society.  Our country’s financial health is a priority, but not at the cost of basic social justice.’

Perhaps if just some of those ministers making these decisions had Grant’s experience of the front line they might think again.  As she puts it: ‘These proposals could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, effectively dismantling an established infrastructure, which achieves an amazing amount with very little. What a waste’.  However, I fear they simply have no idea at all.

One minister who probably has a bit of an idea, albeit from a different perspective, is the Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC.  After meeting family lawyers, he wrote to the Justice Secretary to voice his concern about the £350 million cuts.  He warned they could cost the government more in the long term by increasing the number of people representing themselves so putting pressure on the courts and delaying cases.

This echoes the most senior judge in England and Wales, the Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, who said the proposals would lead to a ‘huge increase in unrepresented litigants’ and ‘would damage access to justice in a number of ways’, with ‘serious implications for the quality of justice and for the administration of the justice system’.  So not only will the cuts have a devastating impact on those that rely on legal aid to get justice, they probably won’t even end up saving any money in the long run.  Genius.

If ministers were going to listen to anyone, you’d think it would be one of  LASPO’s architects.  Lord Justice Jackson wrote the report on reforming civil costs that the government was so pleased with, it transposed nearly all of it into the bill.  But it stopped listening when Jackson spoke out against the cuts to legal aid, in particular removing it for clinical negligence cases.  Even though civil costs and legal aid are inextricably linked, ministers have simply cherry picked the bits they like without considering the overall impact, denying thousands of access to justice.  Again, genius.

Legal aid might not be the sexiest issue on the table, but the campaign to save it has attracted some glamorous supporters.  Impressionist Alistair McGowan (ok, not that glamorous), paralympic athletes Baroness Masham of Ilton and Talan Skeels-Piggins (more glamorous), actress Bianca Jagger and campaigner Jemima Khan (quite a lot more glamorous) have all spoken out against the proposed cuts.  It was even reported that David Cameron’s brother, Alex, isn’t happy about the cuts (and it’s not because, as a criminal barrister he probably does quite well out of legal aid, since criminal legal aid isn’t being cut).

But for all this high profile opposition from parliamentarians, judges and celebrities, the most moving comes from the recipients of legal aid.  Like Andrew Green, a 14-year-old with cerebral palsy caused by clinical negligence at birth.  Because of legal aid, his family were able to get compensation.  Without it, they would never have been able to afford a lawyer and get the financial support that has helped make Andrew’s life ‘bearable’.

This week we will see if the government has paid any attention to these concerns or whether it is sitting petulantly in a corner with its fingers stuck in its ears, whistling to keep out the noise of the dissenters.  Sadly, and here is where I get all subjective again, I don’t expect ministers to reconsider because of the impact the cuts will have on access to justice for the most vulnerable.  But is it too much to hope that they will heed the warnings of some in their own party and legal experts that, ultimately, LASPO won’t save money and will cause chaos in the courts?

Posted in: Legal aid

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