Legal Aid at 64 – Manchester’s Rally

Following my recent speech and previous questions in Parliament opposing the Government’s proposed legal aid changes, I was delighted to be asked to speak at the Legal Aid Rally in Manchester on Tuesday 30th August.  There was a great turn out from people across Greater Manchester, to celebrate 64 years of legal aid and protest the Government’s plans. 

My speech in full is below:-

“I am delighted to be here with you today to celebrate 64 years of legal aid in the UK, but also to protest in the strongest possible terms about this Government restricting access to justice through their attacks on legal aid.

“We should not forget that before Clem Attlee’s 1949 Legal Advice & Assistance Act – introduced as an integral part of the post-war welfare state, and which is being comprehensively dismantled by this Coalition Government – if you were poor, access to legal advice or representation in criminal or civil matters relied on the goodwill of lawyers.

“Since the 1949 scheme, which provided state-funded support in all courts, free to the poor but also made provision for some support for people on modest incomes, there have been many changes; some for the better, e.g., a move towards more independent administration, and some for the worse, e.g., the reduction in the population covered from 80% in 1950 to 36% in 2009.

“But it is the recent changes introduced as part of the 2012 Legal Aid (LASPO) Act which came into effect this April, and in particular the proposed changes in the ‘Transforming Legal Aid’ consultation that have rung alarm bells across the country and beyond – the judiciary, lawyers, legal organisations, charities, prison reform and civil liberties groups, the UN High Commission on Refugees, even the Government’s own Treasury counsel have expressed their concerns.

“The changes introduced to civil legal aid in LASPO restricted eligibility even further; now even people on low incomes eligible for tax credits will not be eligible for legal aid support. And the scope of cases has been reduced too – so let’s hope that you’re not on low income and you’ve got a dodgy landlord, or you’ve have had poor healthcare and exhausted the complaints procedure, or you’re in a custody battle over your children but can’t prove you’ve been in a violent relationship, or you want to appeal a Work Capability Assessment (currently nearly half of these decisions are overturned on appeal), because with this Government you’re on your own.

“The Government’s own impact assessment acknowledges that this will impact on the ‘most disadvantaged in society’. Their cumulative equality impact assessment says that women, people from Black, Asian & Minority communities, the chronically ill and disabled, and the poor will be disproportionately affected. 

“How can you have equality before the law if you can’t afford to pay a lawyer?

“How can the Government say they are doing this to save money when for every £1 spent in legal aid, £10 are saved in other departments?

“And how can they justify these so-called reforms at a time when there are making swingeing cuts to our welfare system and to local government – in Oldham the Council’s grant has been cut by 50% with a further £50m to be found following last month’s Spending Review cuts and devastating cuts to welfare and legal advice – as well as changes to employment law?

“But on top of this, this unelected Government are proposing even more draconian changes reflective of some despot than a country with such a proud history of the rights of law for all its citizens going back to the Magna Carta.

“The fact that the Government has indicated that it does not consider primary legislation is necessary and that it hopes to bring in changes through secondary legislation in the autumn is in itself an appalling reflection of their attitude to the rule of law and access to justice for all.

“Their proposals for criminal legal aid are very serious. From their further restrictions in the eligibility to and scope of legal aid, the removal of upfront legal aid costs, the introduction of ‘price competitive tendering’, and to clients no longer be able to choose their lawyer (in order to ensure that contracted providers have enough work).

“There are so many issues with these proposals – ignoring a fundamental principle of the British Criminal Justice System enshrined in article 6 rights, protected by the Human Rights Act, is that we are all presumed innocent with the prosecution having to prove their case in a fair trial WHICH INCLUDES PROFESSIONAL LEGAL REPRESENTATION; how can this happen if you can’t afford to pay?

“Potential conflicts of interests with PCT, as well as a deterioration in the quality of service – a race to the bottom. The importance of the lawyer-client relationship has been acknowledged by the European Court of Human Rights contrary to the Government’s ‘too thick to choose’ assumption. But most worrying again is the Government singling out of the poor and vulnerable. It is absolutely reprehensible and is taking us back to the dark ages.

“There are many other aspects of the proposals that should be rejected too.

“The proposals to restrict access to advice to prisoners in certain areas have not been thought through and again are punitive; many prisoners are extremely vulnerable with mental health issues or learning difficulties. To suggest that the internal prison complaints and requests system and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman will be sufficient is totally unrealistic. It needs to be recognised that as well as being for punishment, prison should also provide opportunity for reform and rehabilitation, and make appropriate adjustments, e.g., for someone with learning difficulties or other disabilities. His suggestion that this will save £4m is derisible as reliable estimates show they will cost more than twice as much as they save – £10.3m         

“The residency test may seem a good move but the proposed test would operate without reference to the merits of a case or the seriousness of the issues involved. Currently individuals seeking legal aid must be able to demonstrate that they meet tests of means and merit so there is no logical connection with the quality of the cases reaching the Courts, rather, as Liberty have stated, it will create an underclass of people who are unable to access the protection of the civil law. Once more the myth that this will also save the taxpayer money is blown out of the water – reliable figures I have received show it will produce an extra cost of £10.8m

“The proposals to remove legal aid for the right to judicial review challenges fails to recognise their role is of unique constitutional importance in our society, the means by which individuals can hold public authorities, including the Government, to account.  The Government should be ashamed of themselves.

“Again the Government’s claim that legal aid is being used to fund ‘weak cases’ is not substantiated by any evidence.  The Public Law Project shows that over 40% of non-immigration JRs yield positive results for claimants.

“As for savings, again these are spurious and there is good evidence that this will also be a net additional cost to public bodies of between £1.35m and £4.5m.

“There are several other issues with the proposals including ‘harmonising’ fees for guilty, cracked and contested trials which will mean that lawyers are discouraged from taking on complex cases and incentivised to seek the fastest resolution even when it may be in the interests of justice for a full trial.

“This onslaught on legal aid is deeply flawed in concept and proposed implementation, will be an additional cost, not a saving to taxpayers, and fundamentally they will be restricting access to justice, another divisive move by this Government 

“They should be withdrawn now.”

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