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The Experts: Has the sentencing U-turn furore buried the bad news on legal aid?

This is my latest post for The Times, which appears on The Experts blog today.

What was really happening on Tuesday? Was Ken Clarke’s sentencing policy truly in tatters? Did his proposals ever stand a chance of implementation? Surely not. So was it a “give”, something to throw to the masses, designed to head off the media from digging deep into the real issue of the day: the demolition of so much of our legal aid system?

If so, it seems to have worked brilliantly. The media lapped it up, pouncing on Ken Clark and trumpeting the failure of his proposal to halve the sentences of offenders who pleaded guilty. What on earth was that all about? How could offenders receive only half a sentence? And did that proposal really come from a party that prides itself on its reputation for being tough on crime?

Noting the response of the news teams on TV and the next day in the papers, I can imagine the Prime Minister and the Justice Secretary slapping themselves on the backs. What a job well done! It looks as if they have gotten away with it.

I’m a cynical lawyer. As far as I am concerned, the hype about reducing sentences was always going to be followed by a U-turn. The “story”, however, has gobbled up column inches and made it onto several front pages. It has successfully diverted attention from what is happening with legal aid, and from the plight of some of the poorest and most vulnerable in society, who will no longer have the same rights of access to the civil courts as do their richer brethren. In a bid to save £350 million, the Government is making what The Times has described as “the biggest assault on legal aid in 60 years”.

Who knows how many injustices will now occur? I dread to think of the consequences. Family law, clinical negligence, employment, immigration and housing are all affected.

Yesterday, Ken Clarke threatened to abolish the automatic right of arrested suspects to receive free legal representation in police stations.  Again, I am not sure that this proposal will ever see the light of day. So why make it? Is there more bad news to come?

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known family law solicitors and divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1. ObiterJ says:

    I fear that the bad news is far from over. In the Bill are various Henry VIII powers so that Ministers can make further alterations to legal aid provision – which, of course, usually means cuts.

    In Police Station representation, Clause 12 is potentially disastrous.

    Have you seen any costing of replacing one “quango” (the LSC) with another (some “new executive agency” with a powerful Director)?

    I intensely dislike the political games which these people play. Whilst I understand why they do it, it seems to be a further slap in the face for those who will ultimately suffer from their proposals. Multi-millionaire Djanogly played the game of announcing “fat cat lawyers” pay just before they announced the bill. Another example of countermeasures to deflect the radar from the real target. In practice, many lawyers could tell of situations in which eminent “counsels opinion” has actually prevented serious litigation which would have been massively costly!

    Speaking of the powerful Director overseeing legal aid decisions. It somehow reminded me of a line in the film Sink the Bismark when the First Sea Lord was seeking a man to direct the naval operation – “” He’s as cold as a witch’s heart, yet I wish for a man with no heart at all ”

    Perhaps Mr Clarke will include that in the advert!

  2. Marilyn Stowe says:

    Why can’t we trust what we are being told any more?
    Billions are being spent on war in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, funding the EU, Overseas aid to countries who can maintain nuclear weapons. All from our taxes.
    We are being taxed to the absolute hilt and in tough times, fair enough:- I don’t object to doing my bit, if it’s spent wisely.
    But the Legal Aid system in this country is being decimated along with so many other vital services we work hard to pay for and maintain. And should fighht hard to keep.
    I want my taxes to be used to maintain those services and in particular a proud justice system accessible to all.
    But the government just isn’t listening.
    Should we organise a march?

  3. ObiterJ says:

    Sadly, the general public are unlikely to be sympathetic to what they see as special pleading by lawyers. I took a look at this in my blogpost:

  4. Marilyn Stowe says:

    I think your posts are excellent. I heartily recommend them.

  5. Tulsa Divorce Attorneys says:

    Legal Aid plays a crucial role in society. Without a well funded Legal Aid program, the under-priviledged will never get justice.

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