The Government’s proposed changes to legal aid have caused a great deal of concern. The Government intends to introduce changes through secondary legislation, that won’t be subject to a parliamentary vote. The proposals would result in defendants being unable to choose their legal representation, a move to larger providers of legal aid – affecting 1,000 local businesses and the real possibility that the global corporations running legal aid provision, will be the same ones that run our prisons, probation and tagging systems – a real conflict of interest.
Yesterday I co-sponsored a Back Bench Business Committee debate on legal aid reform in the Commons, which was incredibly well attended. There was almost universal condemnation of the proposals, from all parties who believe that access to justice is a key tenet of our democracy – indeed the principle dates back to the Magna Carta!
My speech is copied below and the whole debate can be read here:
Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): Although I am not a lawyer, I should mention that my eldest daughter is a lawyer working in prison law, so I have drawn much of what I will say from her experience.
On the proposals being an attack on access to justice for all regardless of means, we must ensure that such access is protected. Even the Government’s Treasury Counsel has roundly condemned the proposals. What concerns me particularly is the fact that they will not require primary legislation, but will be pushed through in secondary legislation. That is an insult to Parliament.
A system that would restrict access to criminal legal aid to people with assets of less than £35,000 would be very different from the current system. The Government say that they do not want to pay for the defence of wealthy criminals, but people who are charged are not criminals. Indeed, that is the point of charging them. The proposed restriction breaches the fundamental principle in our legal system that those who are charged are presumed innocent until proved guilty. Article 6 of the European convention on human rights requires that they have the right to a fair trial and to professional legal representation. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy): this is akin to what might happen in a country run by a despot. It is entirely unacceptable. Our proud tradition of the right to access to the law dates back to Magna Carta, and we should not threaten that tradition.
I was also concerned to learn that in the autumn there is to be consultation on a proposal to restrict access to legal aid for recipients of benefits. The restriction of access to the law for the poor and vulnerable would take us back to the dark ages, and we must not let it happen.
Some Members have referred to the introduction of price competitive tendering, which many believe will lead to a race to the bottom and a dramatic reduction in the quality of services.
The importance of the right to choose one’s lawyer has also been mentioned. One of my constituents, who is a solicitor, told me of a vulnerable young woman who had been abused. She had been charged on three occasions, but because she had built up a relationship with her lawyer and trusted him, he was able to provide a high quality of representation, and she was acquitted. That would not happen under the proposed new system. Again, we should not jeopardise access to the law for the most vulnerable members of society. According to my daughter, it can take weeks for a trusting relationship to develop; in the early stages, one-word sentences may be the only form of communication.
There are also proposals to restrict access to legal advice in prisons. As I have said, my daughter works in prison law. I have been told that a very vulnerable client who was sentenced at the age of 15 and had served three times her sentence tariff was recently released following a judicial review. That would not happen under the new system—and she is not unique. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), many prisoners are extremely vulnerable, and may have mental health problems or learning difficulties. It should be recognised that punishment is not the only purpose of prison. Opportunities for rehabilitation should be offered, and prisoners should have access to the law when that does not happen. It should also be ensured that facilities are appropriate for those with learning difficulties or other disabilities.
It is a myth that restricting access to civil legal aid will save money. It has been suggested that the changes relating to prison law will save £4 million, but, as we know, there will be a cost of £10.3 million.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. The hon. Lady’s time is up.