The assault on legal aid

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June 23, 2011

 

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

 

Marilyn Stowe

 

What was really happening on Tuesday? Was Ken Clarke’s sentencing policy truly in tatters? Did his proposals ever stand a chance of implementation?

Or was the furore around sentencing 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. 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 sentencing “story” has, however, gobbled up column inches and made it onto several front pages. It has successfully diverted attention away 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?

 

Marilyn Stowe is senior partner at Stowe Family Law