Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/680/12428
Legal Aid Bill - Access to justice is under attack
Paul Heron, legal aid solicitor and Hackney Socialist Party
For those of us working in legal aid, the initial government Green Paper - Proposals for the Reform of Legal Aid in England and Wales - heralded a massive attack not only on our jobs, but also our clients, the welfare state and the principle of justice.
Hundreds of thousands of people with family, housing, welfare, education and immigration problems will, if these proposals are allowed to be introduced, no longer have access to free legal advice.
The Green Paper had an amazing 5,000 responses, from solicitors groups, trade unionists, and ordinary working class people - overwhelmingly against the proposals outlined by the Con-Dem government.
So, what was the effect of the 5,000 submissions to the Ministry of Justice? In two words - very little.
The Ministry of Justice assured legal aid solicitors that they had carefully considered the 5,000 submissions to the Green Paper. However, apart from tiny concessions the consultation responses were ignored.
Unless we are able to win major concessions in the coming months the bulk of the cutbacks outlined initially in the Green Paper, and now consolidated in the Legal Aid Bill, will go through parliament.
The Con-Dem government has clearly made a careful calculation that they do not need to listen to legal aid lawyers, trade unions, or working class people in general.
It intends to force through these changes by highlighting the 'national debt' - arguing that the current annual £2.1 billion legal aid cost is 'unaffordable'.
But although capitalism faces a real crisis, the national debt argument is a deception of epic proportions.
A recent report issued by the PCS trade union and War on Want illustrates that at least £18 billion is hidden away in tax havens every year.
In addition, the Sunday Times (April 2010) Rich List revealed that "the collective wealth of the 1,000 multi-millionaires... has climbed to £335 billion, up £77 billion on 2009. This is a 29.9% increase, easily the biggest rise in the 22 years of the Rich List."
Cut to the bone
The Legal Aid Bill is now in its House of Commons committee stage until October 2011.
The Bill is a vicious attack on access to justice, social justice and civil liberties. The attack is to create a new kind of state where laws and policies may on the face of it guarantee minimum standards. However, in creating a rump legal aid system, a rump that is cut to the bone, such guarantees will not be worth the paper they are written on.
At this stage the attack on legal aid concentrates itself primarily on civil legal aid. It strips away rights to legal aid in employment law, social security/welfare rights, immigration law, and many aspects of housing law. In family law, the Bill seeks to exclude most cases apart from those to do with child protection.
However, criminal legal aid also faces an attack in the future. The Bill includes provisions for the Lord Chancellor to exclude a large number of suspects from receiving advice at police stations by using means and merits tests to decide if a person qualifies for assistance.
Legal aid and its survival is at a critical point. The Con-Dem government has made it clear that ideologically it wants to see its demise.
Legal aid will only be saved as part of the wider campaign to defend public services, and the welfare state. It is up to legal aid lawyers to join with the trade union movement to raise the issues of the defence of legal aid, and it is up to the trade unions and the working class as a whole to embrace the defence of legal aid as the fourth pillar of the welfare state.
For more info see:
http://www.justice-for-all.org.uk/ - supported by Unite and the PCS
http://soundoffforjustice.org/ - the Law Society legal aid campaign
See also on this site Immigration Advice closure shows need for industrial struggle
In The Socialist 20 July 2011:
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Anti-cuts news and campaigning
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Socialist Party reports and campaigns
International socialist news and analysis
Selling the Socialist
Socialist Party review