Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/482/2291
Why legal aid should be defended
WORKERS HAVE only ever won legal 'rights' through struggle. Even then, there is not much point in having these rights if you cannot assert them at court. This will become a lot more difficult soon, due to New Labour cuts to the legal aid system, which pays lawyers who take on cases for the worst-off.
John Greene, solicitor
In cases where it matters, such as domestic violence injunctions, defending yourself against criminal charges, suing a rotten landlord, or applying for a court order to see your children, workers will end up without representation because they can't find a lawyer willing to work for reduced legal aid rates of pay.
At the moment law firms which take on legal aid work are paid by the Department of Constitutional Affairs on an hourly rate of around £50-£70.
The unelected Lord Chancellor, Tony Blair's former flatmate Lord Falconer, is pushing through 'reforms' which will lead to firms being paid a flat-rate fee for most cases.
The figures on offer are way below the fees that would be paid on an hourly rate especially for more complicated cases, which require more work. Some payments, including for travelling to police stations to represent clients, are being abolished altogether.
New Labour says it wants law firms to be "efficient". This means legal aid cases won't go to qualified lawyers. Already some firms operate with a few solicitors each supervising ten or more unqualified paralegals. The number of cases taken on gets ramped up, so the time each client can be allocated is pared to the bone.
I know one solicitor who specialises in advising and representing parents whose children are threatened with being taken into care. A more difficult area of law is hard to imagine. She says that to earn the same income, she is going to have to take on five times as many cases. The number of hours in her day won't expand to match this!
Falconer tries to paint legal aid lawyers as 'fat cats' standing up for terrorists and criminals while taking money from the pockets of 'decent' members of society. He publicises the million pound payouts that a few top barristers can get.
These figures are completely unrepresentative of the vast majority of legal aid lawyers. Most solicitors and barristers working on legal aid cases are paid about the same as skilled white-collar workers in local councils. Legal aid rates have only been increased once in the last ten years.
THE REAL fat cats are commercial solicitors advising New Labour on PFI and other privatisations at rates of £400 an hour or more. These lawyers take taxpayers' money to help flog off public services, and then advise the companies making profits from those services on how to legally trouser even more cash from them.
Not surprisingly, lawyers vote with their feet in disgust. A Law Society survey shows that 58% of legal aid law firms have either decided to, or are considering whether to, give up. When a new legal aid contract was introduced earlier this month around 6% of firms did not sign it, so are already leaving legal aid work.
Rates for privately paying clients in 'high street' firms are two to three times higher than legal aid rates, can be adjusted to match inflation, and don't come with the bureaucratic form filling that you have to do on each and every legal aid case.
In some areas of law, getting a solicitor is already almost impossible, even before the cuts. By definition, anyone needing advice on benefits can't afford to pay lawyers privately, but Welfare Benefits law has always been very badly paid by legal aid, despite it being extremely complex. There are very few solicitors who give advice on it now.
The cuts will also affect Law Centres and Citizens Advice Bureaux. These organisations depend on legal aid for much of their funding. They also get funding from local councils and have been hit hard by cuts, with many operating under constant threat of closure.
When the post-war, reformist, Labour government introduced legal aid it was planned to be a crucial part of the welfare state, like the NHS. No worker would go without access to a doctor if ill or to a lawyer if they needed representation.
However, the system was never invested in to the degree needed. Under Thatcher, eligibility for legal aid was cut so that many workers on average incomes were excluded. A worker on the minimum wage in full-time employment is likely not to qualify for legal aid for cases outside the criminal courts.
Most people know they will need a doctor at some point. Very few realise they need a lawyer until they have to have one. No-one should be forced into "no win, no fee" arrangements, which only cover some areas of law and are frequently full of catches in the small print, nor should they have to borrow money to pay legal fees.
Legal aid needs defending. The Law Society, which represents solicitors, is unfortunately not up to the job.
When solicitors have tried to take industrial action, such as refusing to cover court duty rotas, the Law Society claimed that they were breaking competition law.
It has been left up to groups of solicitors to protest, but they have made the mistake of inviting Tory and Liberal spokesmen to speak at rallies, instead of linking up with other workers who need to fight such as those in the Court Service, represented by PCS, who are on a work to rule against job cuts.
People have a right to good quality legal advice as and when they need it.
Legal aid should be expanded into a comprehensive service, like the NHS, with workers in it (not just the lawyers) paid a living wage that reflects their skills and training. The whole legal system should be democratically controlled by the public as a whole and the staff working in it.
In The Socialist 12 April 2007:
Environment and socialism
G8 Summit protests
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news
International socialist news and analysis