Legal aid work has, paradoxically, always felt like both a duty and a privilege. A duty because the rates of pay are much lower than for private work and, arguably, even artificially depress private rates. The still recent across the board 10% cut in legal aid rates merely exacerbated that differential. A privilege, though, because like every single legal aid lawyer I came into this area of work to represent and work with people who really need help, the involuntary litigants with no other recourse than to the law to safeguard their rights.
It is precisely those clients, the most vulnerable and unpopular ones, who were targeted by the Government in the evisceration of legal aid that took effect this month. This amounts to enforced disarmament of the weakest side in an adversarial system. The tenant facing eviction, the unemployed father mired in debt, the mother seeking contact with her children, the abandoned child seeking to permission to remain; none of these Everymen will be able to remedy a wrong committed against them. The changes are unconscionable, a clear attack not on the lawyers but on those we serve, the weakest and most vulnerable groups in society. It was easy to motivate oneself to anger.
Just as these changes take effect, though, yet further disembowelment of the already hollowed out corpse has been proposed. Rates for judicial review work are to be halved (on top of the recent 10% cut) and, not only that, will only be paid if a judge grants permission to proceed with the claim. A new residency test will inoculate government against legal challenge by new arrivals in this country. Contracting arrangements in criminal law will destroy the criminal Bar and remove choice of lawyer. Prisoners will be unable to challenge their conditions of detention.
Last time it was unambiguously the clients who suffered. This time it is the lawyers then, indirectly, the clients. Grayling’s vacuous comparison between a handful of criminal QCs and the Prime Minister’s salary when he introduced the ‘consultation’ was well debunked elsewhere but it is the tone and intent that matters. Not only are exactly those that most need the ability to challenge government and others to be denied public funding for their cases but the pool of lawyers specialising in such claims is to be decimated. This government does not want alleged criminals to have good defence lawyers, does not want poor or vulnerable people to be able to defend themselves and does not want unlawful government decisions to be challenged. The savings to be made are tiny and unnecessary. This is not a case of the baby being thrown out with the bath water, it is premeditated infanticide.
The proposals are out for consultation, but there seems precious little open-mindedness. Here is my response:
The well is already dry. To poison it for the future is both merciless and malevolent.
I find it harder to work up a good lather of anger for this consultation. It is too easily swatted aside as self interest. My overwhelming emotions are of sadness and regret that it has come to this. And despondency that so many committed colleagues past and present will become casualties on the battlefield. It is hard to see how the better medium sized solicitor firms will carry on and it is inevitable that the Bar will shrink. Examples of shell shocked responses by other practitioners can be found here, here, here and here.
Access to justice feels suddenly very precious and fragile. It has been revealed as a gift within the power of politicians to give and to take away. It puts me in mind of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the short, sharp history of how women’s rights were taken away in a few all too easy steps. It is also a reminder of how important human rights laws are, of why they are under attack and by what interests.