I’d like to join my esteemed fellow blogger John Bolch today in inviting readers to sign the Justice Alliance legal aid petition.
Entitled Save legal aid to protect access to justice for all, this calls on the government t to “halt or repeal all changes that have been proposed in Transforming Legal Aid, which have no mandate since the Liberal Democrat motion opposing them in September 2013.”
Transforming Legal Aid was a government consultation which ran from April to September last year, proposing various further changes to the legal aid system, following the cuts introduced earlier that year.
The proposals included restrictions on criminal legal aid, as well as further changes to what little family law legal aid provision remains, including a 20 per cent reduction in the fees paid to expert witnesses for their contributions in court.
The petition notes that Transforming Legal Aid was criticised by the parliamentary Joint Select Committee on Human Rights. The Liberal Democrats passed an emergency motion opposing the plans at their party conference in September.
Save legal aid to protect access to justice for all, which has already attracted more than 24,000 signatures, declares:
“We believe that these changes to civil and criminal legal aid undermine the rule of law (fairness) and access to justice: they will lead to an unequal society where those with wealth and power have an unfair advantage before the law.”
It would be hard to argue with that statement. Some claim concerns about legal aid are really just lawyers protecting their own interests, but I think that is quite misguided. It is not – for the most part – lawyers who have really suffered from the existing cuts and who will feel the brunt of any further budget slashing – it is those in need for justice. Few people who hire a lawyer would so if they had any other choice – they do so because they are in extremis: their partner has left them, they have been caught in a dispute, they are in trouble and need to protect their interests as best they can.
If they cannot afford to hire a lawyer – and many people cannot – they will have struggle on through the legal process alone, snatching up whatever advice they can find from friends, the internet, and guidebooks.
They just be able to get by, with help from an understanding and patient judge. But what if they then find themselves standing across the courtroom from an opponent who does have a lawyer? The answer is instant injustice. The represented party will have all the advantages of expert advice from someone fluent in the language and procedures of the courts. Even if their case is the weaker one, money affords them a better hand to play. That cannot be right or fair. But I can confirm that it does happen now – and more often than you might think.
Legal aid has been with us since as long ago as 1949. The Justice Alliance – a coalition of charities, community groups and legal organisations – define it briskly as providing:
“…legal assistance to people who would otherwise not be able to afford a lawyer or access to the courts. Legal aid also protects an individual against the risk of having to pay another side’s legal costs out of their own pocket, if the case is lost.”
Let us not forget too that access to justice is a basic human right, set out in Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Will the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, listen to this petition and back down from the proposed further cuts? I’d love to say I’m optimistic, but the answer is probably not. But we can at least make our voices heard, and let it be known that we do not think putting “justice out of reach for many ordinary people” is right or acceptable.
Stephen Fry, comedian Jo Brand and actress Tamsin Greig have all expressed support for the campaign, posing with placards reading ‘I am for justice. Are you?’.