Fundamental rights and freedoms and the rule of law are vital checks and balances in any civilised society – but meaningless without access to justice or the practical means of understanding and enforcing the law of the land. It’s always the poorest and most vulnerable who suffer most from abuse of power and need the law to protect and empower them. But how can people struggling with debt, family breakdown, and mountains of bureaucratic obstacles find a way through without help?
Fair and equal treatment before the law depends upon the ability to translate and understand the language of the justice system. What would it feel like to face losing your children, income, job or anything of huge importance to you without any comprehension of whether the law protects you, let alone advice and representation to allow you to argue your case?
Many societies, throughout history and all over the world, have had beautiful constitutions and statute books guaranteeing all sorts of protections to ordinary people. However, they have been meaningless to the majority of their populations who have had no practical legal support – so the reality has been that the court doors have been locked to them.
We all love schools and hospitals and they are seen as vital pillars of the welfare state that, like human rights, underpins the best in post-war Britain – but legal advice and representation doesn’t seem important until you’re really in trouble. Like joy and grief, the law can be a great leveller but there is no longer a level playing field in legal services.
We rightly take pride in an NHS that delivers vital specialist care to people in Britain regardless of their means. Unlike many countries in the world no one checks your wallet in the emergency room. But when it comes to legal advice, the rich can pay, the not-so rich will struggle to find the means and under new reforms, even the poorest may be shut out from a legal aid system that we were once proud of.
These savage proposals will create huge inequality in custody disputes – as one partner hires a hot-shot legal team, while the other is left to cope with the complex family justice system on their own. Newly unemployed young parents struggling with debt will have no advice about where they stand with unscrupulous loan sharks and landlords. People with disabilities will be left to navigate changes to an already confusing benefits system- as intricate as tax law- unaided. Victims of people trafficking will have no publicly funded legal support whilst seeking redress from their employers or clarification of their status in this country. A child driven out of school by systematic bullying will have no means of forcing the local authority to take action.
Bankers, politicians and corporate tycoons have all found themselves in legal strife. Not all of them deserved it but all were no doubt grateful for the best lawyers that money could buy. Does the rest of Britain deserve anything less?
Shami Chakrabarti CBE is director of Liberty and Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University.