This week is National Pro Bono Week, a short period of time in which lawyers can put aside their usual high costs and instead bang the drum for all things good – all things voluntary, charity and positive in the law community. As the commitment lawyers make to the poorest in society is placed under scrutiny, shouldn’t this also be the perfect opportunity to consider and scrutinize the effects of one of the government’s most unpopular policies – the reduction of legal aid to some of the most vulnerable in society?
The cost of accessing justice is higher than ever before. Access to professional representation is higher in this country than in many Mediterranean countries of Europe. Although some would argue our ‘unique’ mix of law – reflecting both the Roman law Europe has adopted and the Anglo-Saxon law that has been established for more than a thousand years– is the real crux of the matter, the increasingly professional and complex side of practising the subject means that, automatically, large and uneducated swathes of society are locked out of the system. Legal aid cuts are now undermining our constitutional right to access justice, as Lady Jay reported at the end of 2011. It was stated clearly that the £350 million in cuts to the Legal Aid budget – that is the budget for the poorest to get the representation in Court that they truly and rightly deserve – has caused terrible repercussions at every level of society. The Constitution Select Committee report said that the poorest, who are automatically at a disadvantage because of their need to acquire the Aid, which is in itself a time consuming process, are well and truly being blocked from having professional representation. Professional representation that is vital to present a fair and truthful case that, as we have already established, is a profession and skill in which the common man can only attempt to understand.
A 1993 Court of Appeal ruling by Lord Justice Steyn established, as a principle, the right for everyone to have “unimpeded access” to court, and must rank as a “constitutional right”. The Legal Aid Bill is therefore contradicting this constitutional right. The bullish attitude the government has adopted in trying to rampage this bill through both the House of Commons and House of Lords, especially in such circumstances in which Conservative Peers have called for a rethink, is truly worrying. A rethink is the least which is required; a total reverse is what is desired.
The place in which these cuts have been concentrated highlights the terrible impacts this ludicrous and damaging piece of legislation is going to have. Employers will be shielded from challenges that could be bought from employees who are simply too poor to bring appropriate action against the corporation forward. It is a victory for the advantageous corporations who attack employee rights, a defeat for the worker, the student, the unprotected, and the majority. 600,000 people will lose out, as the Ministry of Justice has admitted, because of the legislation. 600,000 people who the public, on a ratio of 4 to 1[i], believe should have been protected from any cuts. Legal aid is more than welfare or a benefit – it is a necessity, legal aid is about giving people a voice and a right.
Furthermore, because the government is yielding the axe at another vital public service, domestic violence victims are less unlikely to bring the guilty to court as the “objective evidence” bar is raised even higher. Children in custody battles will no longer receive state support – the father left with the need to find a good lawyer and the mother relying on other benefits that are being squeezed (or vice versa).
In Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 2 a Jack Cade rebel shouts “The first thing we do, let’s kill all lawyers”. There is a stark contrast to modern day justice here. The lawyer and their fees are protected with the chance to enter court, fight for your corner and win your battle are thwarted at every possible moment by a government hell-bent on asking more from the poor who already have little. If there is one law that needs to be re-examined, one piece of legislation that needs repealing on day one of the next government – one damaging act that needs to be seen for what it really is – the Legal Aid Bill is that law.
By James Wand