As I’m sure you don’t need to be reminded, today is Election Day, the day when the people decide who will govern them for the next five years, or at least until the next election, if no government can be formed in the coming days. This is the defining moment of the democratic system which we all hold so dear, because it gives the people power over who will lead them.
The essence of the system is equality: everyone has an equal say; no one person’s vote is worth more than any other person’s vote. But equality isn’t just about having a vote. It is also about having equal rights. And how do we enforce those rights? By access to the courts, of course. Accordingly, when a citizen’s access to the courts is restricted, then his or her rights are restricted: they are no longer equal.
What do people do when they no longer have equal access to justice? They might give up on their rights, or they might try to take the law into their own hands, as I’ve mentioned here before. However, more than that they may feel that they are no longer part of the system: they may feel disenfranchised.
This, I think, is the central argument of the one hundred and thirty-eight judges, peers, prominent lawyers and doctors working in the civil and criminal justice system who wrote an open letter to The Guardian on the 1st of May, warning that the legal aid cuts introduced by the last government (including cuts to criminal legal aid) threaten our very democracy. They call for the incoming government to restore legal aid to prevent “widespread miscarriages of justice” and say that: “Without access to justice for all, inequalities take on a more dangerous edge which threatens the legitimacy of not just the justice system but our democracy.”
Do the legal aid cuts really threaten our democracy? Or is this just a bit of scaremongering, designed to grab headlines and push the case for legal aid further than it should reasonably go?
To be honest, and for all my opposition to the cuts, I don’t really think that they do, at this point, represent a serious threat to our democratic system. However, that is absolutely not to say that the argument is without merit –ie that restricting access to justice for some is a threat to democracy. On the contrary, I agree entirely that access to justice is so important that if it continues to be eroded then a ‘tipping point’ will be reached when our democracy is threatened. I just don’t believe that that tipping point has yet been reached. However, it may be reached if the next government continues to make justice less accessible, whether by further limiting legal aid, by further increases to court/ tribunal fees, or by some other policy. If the open letter does nothing else, it must act as a warning to the next government to tread extremely carefully.
Of course, my disagreement with the headline to the open letter does not mean that I do not think that the legal aid cuts have already caused a great deal of damage. They most certainly have, as I’ve made clear here many times previously. Whilst I appreciate that money remains in short supply, I would hope that the next government can find a way to repair at least the worst of that damage.
Image by Pete via Flickr