It’s called planning. Before you decide to take an action, you carefully work out all of its predictable consequences, and decide in advance how you will deal with them. It’s not difficult – you aren’t expected to have a crystal ball which will tell you of consequences that were entirely unpredictable. No one will blame you if your action causes things to happen which nobody could possibly have foreseen.
Of course, if your action is likely to affect many people then those people are entitled to expect the planning to have been particularly thorough. Governments, for example, take actions of this type, which is why their citizens should quite rightly hope that proper planning goes into the decision-making process.
Let us take a hypothetical example. Let us say that the country is in economic difficulties and that therefore savings are required in government spending. The Minister in charge of justice decides that one such saving can be made in the legal aid budget, by removing a whole area of law from the scope of legal aid. No longer will the hardworking taxpayer have to pay the legal fees of people wanting legal assistance in that area. It’s not a particularly large saving in the scheme of things, but every little helps.
Now, being a diligent person, the Minister puts his planning process into action, before he goes ahead with the legal aid cut. What could be the possible consequences of such a cut, he asks himself? Well, let’s see: if people no longer have lawyers to assist them, then they will have to represent themselves in court. Perhaps this could lead to certain difficulties, both for those people who don’t know what they are doing, and for the courts as well, burdened with having to explain everything to them. Maybe such a situation might lead to lengthy delays in the courts.
Yes, thinks the Minister, these are serious issues, and I will need to address them before I put my plan into action. He therefore determines to put in place measures to provide proper support and advice for litigants in person, before he implements the legal aid cut.
Well, that is how it should have happened. The reality, as we have been discovering, has been somewhat different. Instead of proper planning for clearly foreseeable consequences, we have had a shambles of panic reactions to those consequences which, to mix my metaphors, are no more than a series of sticking-plasters to paper over the cracks.
As Justice Minister Simon Hughes announced last week (a year and an half after the legal aid cut), the previous £350 million a year legal aid budget will be replaced with a paltry £1.4 million a year ‘package of support’ for litigants in person. Needless to say, that ‘support’ will be rather less than they enjoyed previously. Instead of full legal representation, they will now get assistance with their cases from unqualified (but, I’m sure, well-meaning) law students, as Marilyn Stowe mentioned here last Thursday.
And the most ironic part of Mr Hughes’ ‘plan’ is that he is looking to the very people who were previously cut out of the process for help. Yes, those lawyers who were previously paid (admittedly not very much) to represent these litigants in person will be expected to provide their services for free, or ‘pro bono’. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.
Obviously, what Mr Hughes announced last week was not a ‘plan’ at all. It was a reaction – responding, belatedly and hopelessly insufficiently, to consequences of the legal aid cut that were obvious to all long before the cut was implemented. This lack of planning is, as Marilyn pointed out, a recipe for pandemonium.
Of course, there is also the possibility that no amount of planning could have saved us from the consequences of the legal aid cut, because there were no measures that could be put in place to replace proper representation for litigants. Clearly, the diligent Minister coming to that conclusion would have had only one course of action: to decide not to proceed with the cut after all.