Attacks on legal aid will mean access to justice is only for the rich
Ahead of UK Uncut action on Saturday 5th September - Prof Marjorie Mayo outlines why legal aid is so important.
You might think that there would be broad agreement about the principle of the right to access to justice. Justice for all and equality before the law are amongst the most fundamental human rights – defining features of democratic societies. This was certainly the view of those who supported the development of legal aid as part of the post war Welfare State. ‘Legal aid is a service which the modern state owes its citizens as a matter of principle’ it was argued. Otherwise the right to justice would depend upon citizens’ (unequal) abilities to pay.
But the right to justice is precisely what has been coming under increasing attack. First the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, in April this year, restricted legal aid for civil cases. This affected key areas of law including access to employment advice, debt advice, welfare benefits, immigration and family law. In other words, as the government imposes punitive restrictions on welfare, it is simultaneously removing the ability of people to challenge those restrictions if they result in poverty – unless of course, despite being on welfare, you can afford to pay for legal advice, yourself, privately.
The government has also been moving on to undermine the provision of legal aid in criminal cases. The initial proposals included restrictions on clients’ rights to choose their lawyer, together with proposals to subject legal aid for criminal cases to competitive tendering processes. This would have ensured that the tenders would go to the lowest bidders, such as organisations like G4S and SERCO - and clients would have had no choice about whether or not to be represented by them.
Faced with massive criticisms from broad-based campaign groups, the government has since backed down on these aspects of their proposals, recognising that they would not be able to get away with it electorally. But access to justice remains fundamentally threatened, with further proposals for consultation launched on September 5th (ending October 18th).
The government is still aiming to cut £220 million by cutting the rates of fees paid to lawyers, removing legal aid from those judged as ‘undeserving’ - prisoners, people abroad who might be entitled to sue the British government, people who are here unlawfully or whose immigration status was only regularised in the past 12 months and ‘wealthy’ people – i.e. people with family incomes over £37,500 after deducting certain costs. The most vulnerable people will be amongst those most directly affected.
So what is this really about? The amounts of money to be ‘saved’ are relatively insignificant. And any savings will likely be offset by higher costs: courts risk becoming increasingly clogged up with people trying to represent themselves for example – but taking longer because they lack the necessary legal and procedural knowledge and skills.
Why then does the government seem so determined to pursue these cuts? The most plausible explanation would seem to be that they facilitate wider ideological and political agendas, stigmatising the most vulnerable whilst undermining citizens’ rights to hold government to account – via judicial reviews for instance – undermining the scope for resisting injustices in an increasingly authoritarian state more generally.
The right to justice for all must be defended. Which is why it is so important to support the protest that UK Uncut are mobilising on 5th October.