In what is becoming a series of acts that might be better labelled ‘how to fuck the poor 101’, the Con-Dems have now announced cuts of £350 million to the legal aid budget in England and Wales, which effectively means that legal aid will only be available to protect life and liberty- i.e.it will provide criminal aid, but only limited aid for particular types of civil suits. It is thought that this will mean that there will be 500,000 less civil suits every year. Now, the government claim that this won’t hurt anybody because ‘we’ are all too litigious anyway, and ‘we’ will be forced to find other ways to resolve disputes.
Except ‘we’ doesn’t mean everybody, does it? No, it means those who would have to use legal aid to get justice- aka the poor, or even just ‘the not enormously wealthy’. The rich on the other hand are still free to sue each other- and also the poor- with impunity. This is nothing more than the removal of justice from those without money; it is a fundamental infringement on any claim that we are a democratic, equal society. And, in that vein, I don’t think it is too dramatic to call this both disgusting and even immoral. In a week where we are supposed to be celebrating Armistice Day and where – as I heard on the radio- one veteran noted that we are supposed to stop and remember our freedom and liberties, we see our own government taking away those same freedoms and liberties. Because justice is the centrepiece of any claim to being a democratic nation.
Now, I now know that there will be common complaints that we are too litigious and we are wasting money on nonsense suits- but the reality is that England has always been litigious. In 1640, two Westminister Courts alone dealt with 28,000 cases in one year (and remember there are more courts both in London and across the rest of the country), when the population of England was only about 4 million. Forms of legal aid- whether from the Church, the State or from employers and patrons- were available across this period. The ability- and the also the choice to- participate in the legal system was a marker of the public’s recognition of the centrality of the exercise of justice to good governance and increasingly democratic society. Indeed, a lot might be said about the way in which the increased impartiality, independence and legal sophistication of the court system progressed simultaneously to the growth of parliamentary power and civil society. Access to justice through the courts is as central to democracy as access to the vote.
What’s more, it is a bit problematic to claim that either legal aid- or for that matter the court system itself- supports any and all legal claims. Complaints have to meet a threshold of competency to progress- usually a good lawyer will throw you out her or his office before it gets to that stage, or it will get thrown out by a judge before trial. Indeed, most legal aid lawyers are careful about what cases to proceed with- because they know money is limited and that the decisions of what cases they proceed with are open to a high degree of public scrutiny (from Legal Aid administrators, politicians and the public). In other words, there is already a check on what cases proceed through the court system. What this decision by the Con-Dems does is to say that they as politicians now decide what cases are valid and who should receive justice- and in what form it should be received. This is a fundamental infringement on the independence of the justice system and so a direct attack on our liberty.