Campbell Robb, chief executive of Shelter, sets out what the government’s gambling will mean in practice…
Unless you are sitting at the roulette wheel, leaving things to chance is a risky strategy. It can be risky even then, but there isn’t much in the way of an alternative. Even people who think of themselves as impulsive or go-with-the-flow types probably don’t leave everything to chance and have a pension, a career plan, or home contents insurance. And yet, leaving it to chance does seem to have become the government’s policy of choice when it comes to legal aid.
You could, with some reason, argue this is its policy of choice when it comes to quite a few other areas as well, but at least media and public scrutiny has forced ministers to attempt to defend their stance on, for example, benefit cuts. Little attention, however, has focused on the chaos about to be unleashed in legal aid when funding cuts kick in on 1 April.
Astonishingly, given the significant areas of the law that will no longer be eligible for legal aid, there has been barely a whimper outside of the rarefied debates in the House of Lords or the noble yet niche efforts of various commentators in the legal press.
The Law Society’s Sound off for Justice campaign fell silent once the proposed cuts were signed into law. There’s been no Panorama investigating whether our already stretched courts will be able to cope with thousands more people having to represent themselves, no Dispatches about what happens when people struggling with benefit problems or houses in intolerable states of disrepair can’t get legal help, and no Daily Mail campaign to force a government u turn.
The last one, I admit, is fairly unlikely. But it appears it is not just the government prepared to leave the outcome of this policy to chance. The chance, that is, that the legal profession itself will pick up the slack because, after all, lawyers earn a fortune and should be forced to give some of it back, for example by paying a levy on their practising certificate to fund law centres.
It is true that while there is no direct equivalent for lawyers of the Hippocratic Oath there is a commitment to uphold the rule of law, part of which must surely be ensuring everyone is able to have access to the law as and when they need it. It is, nonetheless, quite a leap from this to requiring the legal profession to pay what would effectively be a lawyer tax.
Lawyers aren’t terribly popular, but this seems a bit harsh. Fat cat surgeons aren’t expected to pay for hip replacements the NHS can’t afford; rich, greedy bankers aren’t expected to fund credit unions; expenses-laden MPs aren’t expected to pay for the upkeep of Parliament. You get my drift.
Equally unfeasible is trying to transform pro bono, free legal advice given by lawyers, into a compulsory add-on to the day job. There are all sorts of reasons why this is a bad idea, not least that it is unreasonable to expect a mergers and acquisitions lawyer by day to turn seamlessly into a social welfare lawyer by night.
That’s not to say city lawyers and law students don’t have a valuable contribution to make or that current arrangements couldn’t be more strategic. I’d go so far as to say they probably should have to get down and dirty with the real people at some point in their career, so I like the requirement recently introduced in New York for all law students to perform 50 hours of unpaid work of a condition of practicing in the state.
But making sure all lawyers understand the sharp end of their profession is a far cry from adopting it as your policy for maintaining the rule of law, which is what the government seems to be doing with its ‘community legal companions’, law students to advise people preparing to appear in court without a lawyer.
What is most shocking about this, if not unfortunately at all surprising, is that we are quite happy to fob off those with some of the most fundamental and complicated legal needs on to the well meaning but unqualified.
We may not have a national legal service to parallel the national health service (and we may not have that for much longer either) but we will all be the poorer if justice is dependant on ability to pay. What’s just as depressing is that the government seems effectively to have abdicated all responsibility for developing an alternative.
And there must be alternatives. It cannot be that we are happy to consign tens of thousands of people to a justice black hole where they have no means of enforcing their rights. Equally, a piecemeal approach, propping up one law centre here, throwing recurrent lifelines to another one there, is neither desirable nor sustainable.
Some time ago the justice minister Lord McNally told a Legal Aid Practitioners Group conference that ‘it is time to move on from LASPO’ (the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012). In one respect he’s right, it is certainly time to move on from arguing that the cuts are unjust and will be terribly damaging to many of the poorest and most disadvantaged.
In another sense, we can’t possibly move on from LASPO until we have found a coherent policy alternative to legal aid, one that government, society and the legal profession will accept. This means rethinking what we mean by access to justice and building a system that works for individuals rather than just the lawyers that staff it.
Just hoping the ball lands on black is not the answer.
So I did the walk. This gives you a bit of idea as to what it was like.
Team Justice Gap raised just over £2,000 including Gift Aid. Over 6,000 walkers raised nearly £550,000 in total for law centres in London and the South East. Just a little bit amazing.
This is a revised version of a blog published on the Convergence website in February.
What is the Big Society? We were told it was about ’empowering communities’. Cameron says its his ‘great passion’. Steve Moore of the Big Society Network (no I don’t know what it does either) has said it is the sum of a million small things. However, I am finally starting to get it and it seems the sceptics were right all along. It is just a smoke-screen for cuts and now we are starting to see the proof.
Before I go any further I should confess that I am one of those Big Society sceptics and I am also a bit of a lefty, so I am bound to grab any opportunity to score some cheap political points. But all my attempts to get to the bottom of this ‘defining vision’ failed, even when I had the opportunity to question Mr Moore himself (he just got more and more annoyed as I got more and more confused).
One of my big concerns is that there is a big difference between people getting together to run, say, a single mums’ support group once a week or campaigning for a 20mph zone, and making the commitment to take over a library, or even set up a school. We are not all Toby Young and most of us don’t have the time or the skills to take on these responsibilities (and there is also something a bit distasteful about saying enthusiastic volunteers can just pick up when the professionals, eg librarians, lose their jobs). I won’t even get into how I feel about letting parents set up schools all over the place. PS I am a parent.
Equally as absurd is expecting cash-strapped charities to step in where the public sector has had to step back. For years charities, certainly the small, community ones expected to build the Big Society, have been unable to capacity build effectively because grants are always ring-fenced for specific projects. I used to set policy for lottery grants and witnessed the absurdity of perfectly good charities having to reinvent themselves, repackage what they do and fill in reams of paperwork to get their hands on even the smallest amounts of cash. Then, when the project was over, they had to do it all again, possibly even for the same funder. But now there is no more cash…
So maybe volunteers are the answer, maybe Cameron is right, maybe we should expect charities to rely less on money and more on ‘gifts in kind’. I am a trustee of a small legal charity and much as we love lawyers helping us on a pro bono basis, what we really need is money to pay our excellent core staff, not city lawyers giving legal advice in an area they probably know nothing about. It comes back to the professionalism point. Some volunteering can do more harm than good.
I am also fearful that by relying on donations, financial or otherwise, we are unwittingly recreating the paternalistic Victorian philanthropists who chose between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. Of course, Daily Mail ‘journalists’ and their followers in government will tell you there are undeserving poor (largely, of course, benefit cheats of which I am sure there are millions). But I think the distinction is more subtle than that and worthy of proper attention, not just recourse to a Daily Mail headline.
And now, the campaigning website False Economy, tells us that at least 2,000 charities are facing budget cuts as local authorities reduce their funding. They point out that ‘these cuts are not just to ‘nice to have’ groups, but organisations providing services for older people trying to maintain independent lives, vulnerable children and abused women.’ Cutting their funding doesn’t just cause misery and distress, it only puts pressure onto other statutory services like the NHS. How is that the Big Society?
The Guardian writes today about a Home Start centre in Hull, the 11th most deprived region in the country, losing its £107,000 grant. If it closes, after 25 years, then 167 families with 406 children will be without a service they rely on and that costs just £21 a week for each family. Pretty difficult to see how that could be done any cheaper. How is that the Big Society?
Yesterday, Citizens Advice, which provides advice and support to more than 2 million people, said that Bureaux across the country are facing closure because of budget cuts. It said the situation in some areas was ‘desperate’. Government proposals to remove social welfare and housing cases from legal aid will only exacerbate the situation. So how will the poor and vulnerable get justice? How is that the Big Society?
When I first wrote this blog, I was just a sceptic, but now I am angry. Far from empowering communities, the Big Society and its evil twin Budget Cuts are in danger of ripping them apart. I refuse to believe there isn’t a more responsible way to solve the economic crisis. But then I suppose I am rather missing the point. The Big Society may be a cover for the cuts, but the cuts are the cover for a deluded ideology that bears no reflection on real people’s lives and is happy to cut much of society adrift. If that’s David Cameron’s ‘great passion’ then we are all in big trouble.
Yesterday, as I sat in a planning meeting for the Sound off for Justice campaign, I became quite depressed that, for all its boldness and ingenuity in fighting legal aid cuts, the Law Society was probably going to fail. More depressing still, while a major reason is undoubtedly an intransigent government hell bent on cutting at all costs, part of this failure will be because it is being led by the Law Society.
I haven’t gone native, but I’ll put my hands up and say I’ve been very impressed with Sound off for Justice, and the Law Society now feels a million miles from the organisation I’ve spent years berating for its protectionism and failure to embrace change. The problem is that the general public probably don’t believe that the Society is doing it ‘because it is the right thing to do’ and see Sound off for Justice as driven by self interest.
This bothers me. Why don’t people see that access to justice is as important as access to healthcare or education? Although the Legal Aid and Legal Advice Act of 1949 didn’t set up a national legal service, it did recognise that equality of access and the right to representation before the law was fundamental to a just society. I guess many think legal aid is something for ‘benefit scroungers’ and other ne’er do wells. that if they don’t break the law and keep their heads down they’ll be ok.
But it doesn’t take much to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and suddenly find you need legal assistance. The government has said it has no intention of removing the right to police station advice, but has, worryingly, left the provision in the justice bill.
And it doesn’t take much to become a victim of clinical negligence – it happens to one in ten people who undergo treatment in hospital. You won’t get legal aid, so without a stash of cash you won’t get justice.
It also doesn’t take much, if you are one of the thousands who’ve lost their job, to find yourself at the wrong end of a repossession order. You will get legal aid if you are about to be made homeless, but then it’s probably too late.
Then there’s the ‘legal aid fat cats’, those criminal legal aid barristers raking it in. One of them is David Cameron’s brother, who was paid over £1.13m in legal aid fees over the last decade. Another is the brother of Justice minister Crispin Blunt, who took an almost unbelievable £5.86m over the same period. This diverts the public’s attention from those at the sharp end of civil legal aid who probably earn less than me (and, arguably, I’m not doing anything particularly useful).
Sound off for Justice rightly targeted decision-makers rather than the mass general public. But with ministers failing to respond, maybe now it’s time to garner more public support. The 26,000 signed up to the campaign is a start, but far more are needed if Tory MPs (and, let’s face it, it is Tory MPs) are going to start worrying that cutting legal aid is a vote loser.
Despite being a campaign genius (my own words) I don’t know how they’ll do this. Never mind ‘giving’ fatigue, I fear we are entering a period of ‘campaign’ fatigue, or frankly just general fatigue at trying to keep all the plates spinning, as jobs are lost, services slashed and prices rise. If people are targeting their efforts, they are probably not going to choose a campaign run by lawyers for the benefit of other lawyers, even if it’s not primarily lawyers who will suffer. I understand this. But it will be the most vulnerable in society who lose out, and don’t forget, that could be you.