Knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing
And so the legal aid bill has ended its ignominious passage through Parliament and received Royal Assent. It is, without a doubt, one of the most controversial pieces of legislation to come out of this most controversial of governments and will, also without a doubt, eviscerate the legal aid system.
According to Citizens Advice, about 650,000 of those currently helped by legal aid will in future find themselves without legal advice. As the people who pick up the pieces, they ought to know, it's just a shame nobody in government was paying any attention. Although I note ministers were paying enough attention to suggest organisations like Citizens Advice will be able to fill the gaping hole they have carved out of legal aid.
It is very easy to be very very angry about this pernicious piece of legislation, targeting as it does the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Justice ministers have been hoodwinked by an evangelical Treasury, whose only interest is to slash costs with no regard for the casualties. There will never be a better example of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Justice ministers have spent far too much time over the last few months telling us how ‘generous’ our civil legal aid system is (was) and how it is the most expensive in the world. But it only costs £920 million, and I’ve yet to meet one of those fat cat legal aid lawyers we are always hearing about, the ones who cream the system for their own benefit.
Because there is nothing left to say about the cuts to legal aid that hasn’t been said better and more eloquently elsewhere, I thought instead I’d look at what the government has spent that £350 million on instead. I know not all money is the same, so it is a bit like comparing apples and pears. But hey, the government doesn’t seem too bothered about back-of-fag-packet calculations, so why should I be?
First off, and most obviously, the Olympic games. Now, I am not a killjoy, I know there must be bread and circuses. I am going to see the tennis and I will be watching on TV to find my dad in the opening ceremony as somehow he has got a part in that gig (although he is not getting any of the £41 million extra recently allocated for it, not sure who is). But there’s organising an event and then there’s showing off, which is fine if you can afford it, irresponsible if you can’t.
According to a Sky News investigation, the total budget is now set to top £12 billion and could reach as much as £24 billion. Even if it’s kept to the lower figure, that’s still £3 billion more than the official budget and that alone could keep us in social welfare law for a few years.
Next up, all these royal celebrations we’ve been treated to lately. I like a good wedding as much as the next person and I would certainly not begrudge anyone making it a day to remember. But did we all have to celebrate it with a bank holiday? Some suggestions put the cost of that extra day off at £2.9 billion. And this year we’re getting another one…
If these examples are a bit mean, what about the £43 million the Ministry of Justice has spent on external consultants since May 2010. Or the £31 billion that the National Audit Office reckons the government has wasted because civil servants lack the skills to negotiate better contracts with the private sector? It found £10 billion lost through uncollected income tax and billions more squandered on flawed IT projects and transport schemes. That would pay for a lot of legal aid.
Then there’s the referendum on the alternative vote that the Liberal Democrats, who have been pretty quiet when it comes to defending legal aid, strong-armed the government into last year. Not only was it a resounding failure, it cost anywhere between £80 and £250 million depending on who you believe.
I am not against reforming our democratic institutions, god knows they need it, but would you rather spend our cash on elections for mayors and police commissioners or, as no doubt we soon will, members of the house of Lords, or on helping victims of domestic violence and those challenging shoddy welfare decisions by public bodies?
I used to be a bit of a cheerleader for reforming the upper house, but right now I think we should leave well alone. If it weren’t for unelected peers having the gumption and independence to vote with their consciences the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act would be far far worse than it is. Swapping them for yet more elected political lackeys doesn’t seem such a good idea at the moment.
As the campaign group Justice for All have pointed out, there have been major changes from the original proposals, including retaining legal aid for special educational needs, child abduction cases and welfare benefit appeals to the second tier tribunal and higher courts; restricting the mandatory telephone gateway; broadening the definition and evidence base of domestic violence and increasing the time limit for bringing a case; keeping legal aid in police stations; and ensuring the Director Legal Aid Casework is independent from government.
Perhaps the most depressing aspect of this shiny new law is its failure to recognise ‘access to justice as a vital constitutional principle’. Despite the best efforts of Lord Pannick and others, the government refused to budge on including an amendment stating the Lord Chancellor ‘must secure within the resources made available, that individuals have access to legal services that effectively meet their needs’.
All of which goes to prove this can’t just be about money.