Unite has called for ‘immediate action’ on the part of a new Labour government to reinstate cuts to the legal aid scheme to provide help for children, young people and the victims of domestic violence.
- The photographs are from the upcoming British Library exhibition Magna Carta: law, liberty, legacy
A new report (Magna Carta today? What would a progressive government need to do, to ensure access to justice for social welfare in the twenty first century?) by Unite and Goldsmiths, University of London has warned that £350m worth of legal aid cuts introduced in April 2013 under the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act amounted to a ‘false economy denying justice to 620,000 people’.
‘Justice secretary Chris Grayling should hang his head in shame at the coalition’s decision to pick on the most vulnerable in society for misguided cuts to legal aid,’ commented Unite national officer for the not-for-profit sector Sally Kosky. ‘Denial of justice strikes at the very heart of creating a fair and equal society.’ Kosky called LASPO ‘a national disgrace’.
‘For every £1 spent on legal advice and aid, the state saves around £6 on other forms of spending, including spending as a result of families becoming homeless and children being taken into care. These ‘reforms’ have therefore been seriously counterproductive in financial terms, as well as being fundamentally unjust.’
The authors Marjorie Mayo, Emeritus Professor of Community Development at Goldsmiths and researcher Gerald Koessl make the case for access to justice – and legal aid, in particular – in the development of English justice system going back back to Magna Carta and earlier. The report quotes Pericles from 431BC saying the laws should ‘afford equal justice to all… class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor poverty bar the way’ as well as Thomas Paine.
‘Despotic government supports itself by abject civilization, in which debasement of the human mind, and wretchedness in the mass of people, are the chief criterions. Such governments consider man (sic) merely as an animal; that the exercise of intellectual faculty is not his privilege; that he has nothing to do with the laws but to obey them; and they politically depend more upon breaking the spirit of the people by poverty, than they fear enraging it by desperation’
Thomas Paine, 1797
This, the authors say, is ‘why legal aid is so centrally important still, today’.
The report asserts that access to justice ‘has been seen as a fundamental right in Britain from Magna Carta onwards, predating the establishment of legal aid to ensure that no one would be “financially unable to prosecute a just and reasonable claim or defend a legal right” in Britain by more than seven centuries’. ‘By aiming to ensure that citizens have effective access to their rights, including their welfare rights, legal aid has been described as the foundation of the welfare state’, it continues.
The report also flags up the 70% reduction of new civil legal aid cases started between 2012-13 and 2013-14 and a 47% reduction of completed civil legal aid cases between 2012-13 and 2013-14
It also points to a 39% reduction of applications received for representation before the courts (for non-crime cases) between 2012-13 and 2013-14 and a 28% reduction of certificates granted for representation between 2012-13 and 2013-14.
Unite’s ‘short term’ recommendations:
- Providing legal aid to children and young people, and removing the barriers to victims of domestic violence;
- Ensuring the use of any underspends to provide advice and legal aid as needed; and
- Providing interim stability for the sector by extending the Big Lottery advice service transition fund for an additional year, pending the development of the national strategy for the longer term
Unite’s ‘longer term’ recommendations:
- Developing a national strategy for advice and legal aid, bringing together local strategies, to ensure comprehensive and preventative approaches to the provision of advice and legal aid, together with public legal education ; and
- Establishing backup with a 10-year national advice and legal support fund for England and Wales
Jon is editor of the Justice Gap. He is a freelance journalist. Jon's books include The First Miscarriage of Justice (Waterside Press, 2014), The Justice Gap (LAG, 2009) and People Power (Daily Telegraph/LawPack, 2008). Jon is a journalism lecturer at Winchester University and a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln. He is twice winner of the Bar Council's journalism award (2015 and 2005) and is shortlisted for this year's Criminal Justice Alliance's journalism award