The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
When it comes to ideas of justice I’m with Shakespeare. A class performance of Act 4, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice had such an impact on me that nearly 30 years later I can remember who played which part, even though we were in an English lesson and still in school uniform. Would that some members of the government had had the same experience.
I find myself increasingly questioning what exactly government, particularly this government, is for. I thought, stupidly, that it was there to protect the poor and weak, the disadvantaged and vulnerable, the sick and ostracised. After all, the rich, mighty, clever and powerful can largely look after themselves.
I am not going to list everything our current rulers have done that could reasonably be assumed to contravene that purpose. Suffice to say if you’re not part of a ‘hard-working family’ (whatever that is) you are probably not in favour.
However, this government does take one of its duties, protecting the rule of law, very seriously indeed. It takes as its blueprint that tried and tested method of keeping order by just silencing anyone who dissents and trying to dispose (quietly or otherwise) of those lesser people who are just a drain on resources and apparently contribute nothing to the greater good.
This is actually quite baffling because, with the arguable exception of North Korea, contrary to what seems logical, this has been shown not to work; but then facts have always been a bit problematic for this government. If the new ‘gagging law’curtailing what campaigning organisations, from your local community group up to the largest national charities, can say or do in the year before a general election is not sufficient proof for you, then attempts to slash legal aid should be.
You may agree with the Minister of Justice that lawyers are paid far too much for defending wicked criminals, dirty immigrants and scrounging serial benefit cheats (on the whole, they aren’t) but it’s a dirty job and someone’s got to do it. Or not if Chris Grayling gets his way, because cuts in the criminal legal aid budget mean anyone could find themselves caught up in the wrong end of the justice system with no means of climbing out.
Anyone in any one of those hard-working families politicians love so much could fall foul of the law. You could easily be in the wrong place at the wrong time, be wrongly accused, involved in a car accident, get into a fight, drive too fast or over the limit or be mistaken for someone else. Could you afford a shit-hot lawyer to plead your case and hopefully get you off? You can be sure most government ministers could.
Politicians might think the poor and disadvantaged are a breed apart, different from the rest of us, who have always been that way. That’s probably why they have already slashed the budget for civil legal aid (ie for anything not criminal in nature). But anyone in any one of those hard-working families could find themselves caught up in debt with no means of climbing out and end up losing their home. Any one of them could lose their job and get sick and need to rely on welfare payments of one sort or another to feed the rest of their family. And it’s quite likely that quite a few of them will get divorced. Could you afford a lawyer if you suffered at the hands of a negligent doctor or unscrupulous employer? If not, you’d better hope you’re adequately insured.
The government has been keen to characterise legal aid as an expensive and unnecessary handout. The problem is, justice is not about money and once you start characterising it as such you risk opening up all sorts of cans of worms. The justice system is, or it should be, the bedrock of democracy. Believe it or not, Parliament is also vital for democracy but you don’t need it to govern. Not surprisingly no one is suggesting we scrap that because it’s expensive and unnecessary.
Justice does not mean the same to everybody (political philosopher Michael Sandel explains this best). On the whole our concept of justice goes beyond the purely utilitarian (ensuring the most people possible are happy) and libertarian (respecting everyone’s right to live as they choose) and makes judgements about who deserves what and which virtues are worthy of recognition. If justice is about making these sorts of decisions then it is more than a marketplace, it is about defining a shared project for the common good. It means we accept that markets cannot by themselves confer fairness and requires us to decide whether there are areas of life that cannot be left to the power of what’s in your pocket.
Is it acceptable for Westerners to pay Indian women to carry babies for them? What is the problem with allowing parents to secure a place for their child at a university by making a substantial donation? Should we pay children to encourage them to read, or donors to give blood, or drug addicts to become sterilised?
While these questions may seem to have little in common with the legal aid debate they all have the same source: is there a moral limit to markets and are some things beyond a straightforward cost price analysis? What is the point of having a government meant to protect and nurture society if we simply submit everything to a value for money argument?
This is the point of legal aid, to ensure that every one of us, from the prince to the pauper, is equal before the law. Without it, what stake do those unable to access justice have in our society? Why should they submit to the rule of law if it offers them nothing in return? But rather than justice, this government seems to offer nothing but vengeance.
The pound of flesh, which I demand of him,
Is dearly bought; ’tis mine and I will have it.
(The Merchant of Venice, Act IV scene I)