The Haldane Society expresses its alarm at the latest round of Government proposals to further erode the legal aid budget and with it the ability of millions to assert their rights before a court: “Transforming Legal Aid” (Ministry of Justice, April 2013). We believe that these cuts, if implemented, will be a catastrophic attack on access to justice for the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. The cuts introduced under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act only came in to force on 1 April.
As with the cuts being made to the benefit system we see this as nothing more than punishment for the most vulnerable in our society. And as with the judicial review consultation before it, the Justice Secretary makes a number of disparaging claims about legal aid and cases ‘without merit’ for which he provides no evidence at all.
The consultation proposals offend basic notions of fairness, justice and respect in the most pernicious ways. The removal of legal aid for all treatment matters in prison will be to deny prisoners expert assistance in asserting their rights in respect of one of the most fundamental aspects of prison life.
The introduction of a residence test for those claiming legal aid will disproportionately affect foreign nationals newly arrived in the country or here temporarily. It is nothing other than discrimination. Such legislation would mean potential abuses by the state will go unchallenged. Frequently, it is children of foreign nationals who need legal aid, so that they can get the social services’ support to which they are entitled if destitute. A residence test would leave children unable to enforce their rights.
In criminal work, the proposals for price competitive tendering for criminal legal aid work will destroy community legal services and herald a race to the bottom which will only favour those large corporations who can absorb the losses. The continued withdrawal of legal aid for defendants in criminal cases threatens the equality of arms in the courtroom. Pressure will be brought to bear to plead guilty and cases simply will not be properly prepared because no proper funding is allocated to them. Miscarriages of justice will result and will not be remedied for years.
The effect of these proposals, if successful, will also be to remove the ability of the client to instruct the solicitor of their choice. Instead solicitors will be allocated to clients through a rota system.
Both criminal and civil legal aid lawyers have faced – and absorbed – cuts to funding over several years. These new cuts, taken together with the LASPO cuts, raise the very likely prospect that there will no longer be specialist legal aid lawyers in the near future. An important part of the welfare state – free legal advice and representation for those who need it most – will be destroyed.
The Society is clear that these proposals must be opposed. We will be submitting a response to the consultation. We encourage all practitioners to do the same on behalf of their firms, chambers and other legal organisations. We call for all individuals, representative and campaigning organisations, who share our view that access to a properly resourced , high standard legal advice and representation is a fundamental pillar of the welfare state, to work together to defeat these proposed changes.