On 30 July 1949, legal aid was introduced in the UK. One of the best-funded systems for legal representation on the planet, it is now facing its nemesis in the shape of the Coalition Government. A valiant effort at closing the ‘justice gap’, legal aid turned the justice system in the UK from the preserve of the rich to something which, with research, fortune and the right contacts, the poor could also access. 62 years of a more equal playing field, it seems, is far enough, as the Government prepares to roll back the clock and limit access to courts, tribunals and ultimately the rule of law.
Kenneth Clarke, Minister for Justice is overseeing one of the biggest changes to the legal system in memory, the full frontal assault on legal aid. Having the rule of law is universally accepted as a good thing, denying people access to legal representation through a support system for the poor compromises that system, creating a two tier system; those with recourse to the courts and those who do not.
Half a million cases cut
The Government is keen to present the cuts in legal aid as a cut to lawyers who line their nests at the expense of the tax payer, but legal aid lawyers are not so rich as to have duck islands and moats that need cleaning. The real beneficiaries of the slashing of funds available for legal aid will be the corporations, authorities and institutions whose errors and abuses of power will go unchecked in the future. Kenneth Clarke aims to slice £315 million off the legal aid bill by 2015. This is achievable, he says, by denying the right to access legal aid “unless life or liberty is at stake”. An estimated 500,000 fewer cases overall will proceed as a result.
So far as immigration goes, the key proposal is to get rid of funding for immigration appeals before both the Tribunal and in subsequent appeals – this includes cases in which human rights issues under Article 8 ECHR arise (it does not extend to detention/SIAC appeals). Another key issue is the removal of any assistance for the purposes of asylum support. There’s good quick outline of the proposals prepared by the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association (click on Info Service-> Update Sheet 33 -> Legal Aid 7).
These reforms of course don’t sit alone, there will also be significant reductions in available funding for debt, employment, welfare, housing, education and family matters which will all impact not just on migrants, but on the poor more generally.
A triple whammy
As we previously noted, cuts to local authorities are ultimately going to affect the ability of law centres and CAB’s to continue to provide advice and representation. For those who rely upon charitable grants this is also a difficult time given that many of those trusts invested, and made losses in the recent downturn. Further the proposed introduction of fees for most tribunal users can only aggravate matters.
Justice for all
It is to be welcomed that scores of advice and legal agencies have united to form the Justice 4 All coalition that is opposing the cuts faced by the sector. On Wednesday 12 January a launch event and lobby of MPs took place in the House of Commons hosted by MP Yvonne Fovargue . The response to the call for the meeting was truly impressive. People from across the country attended the meeting and then visited their MPs to impress upon them the severity of this plan. In fact attendance was so great that the meeting had to be run twice with different MPs speaking as the room booked simply could not accommodate everyone who turned up. Hearing from MPs and people who had turned to the Legal Aid system in the past, the majority of the people in the room (both times) then went to see their MP about the issue.
A couple of hundred representative-botherers in Parliament is a good start, but this needs to be fought, tooth and nail all the way. When Kenneth Clarke spoke in Parliament to introduce these cuts he referred to “unnecessary court cases” many of which would never “have even reached the courtroom door, if it weren’t for the fact that someone else as paying”. True to form for this administration, he focused on occasional or mythical abuse of the system to damn the whole shebang.
What can you do?
So we now ask you to do what you can in relation to the proposed legal aid cuts. We a need united opposition not only to cuts to immigration, but legal aid more generally.
- Pressurise your MP through a quick e mail to sign the Early Day Motion (you can check if (s)he is one of the sixty eight who, at time of writing, have so far signed it) and get your colleagues, fellow students and neighbours to do the same.
- Visit the Justice 4 All website
- Get your group, or if you have none yourself to formally support the Justice for All Coalition and sign up to email / twitter / facebook alerts to see what further activities are organised.
- Respond to the consultation on the legal aid proposals which closes on 14.02.11. It’s particularly important for civil servants. trade unions and their members, charitable groups, migrants and anyone else who cares about the rule of law and access to justice to put in a response. ILPA has its initial response up which you can look at for a bit of guidance on immigration matters.
- If you are/were a migrant tell us through this blog or through our general e mail address (email@example.com) how legal aid helped you, and why you feel you couldn’t have done without it!
- ILPA has called for case studies from its members to be sent to Alison.Harvey@ilpa.org.uk
- If you’re a solicitor complete the Law Society Survey detailing how the proposed reforms will impact on you.
- The Young Legal Aid Lawyers group and the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers are holding an enquiry to look at the case for Legal Aid lawyers. It wil take place on 2nd February 2011 and is open to all but they are particularly interested to hear from clients and former clients who might be willing to give testiomy.
Together we really can stop justice taking a body blow in the UK!