Tag Archives: justice

Justice is worth more than money

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)

In praise of the Public Law Project

Access to justice was not something I thought about much until I started working for Which? the consumer organisation. I had just assumed that when you needed to use the law to solve a problem you’d be able to.  But negotiating the legal system is not an easy task, even with the help, or sometimes hindrance, of a lawyer.

I spent a lot of time not being very nice about lawyers and berating them for not treating their customers fairly.  As far as I could see, access to justice was being undermined by their old-fashioned, expensive and opaque services.  I saw the Legal Services Act 2007 as a great achievement, which would open up the legal market and make it more accessible for thousands, if not millions, of people.

All well and good, but once I started to realise access to justice isn’t just about being able to get advice about your divorce on a Sunday or draft a will on the internet.  The justice system is much wider than just high street solicitors and big, multi-million city firms.  For many people, justice means getting advice about their housing or debt problem; or challenging an immigration decision or a benefit cut; or getting redress for an NHS mistake.

Fortunately this realisation coincided with my discovery of the Public Law Project.  Here was a charity that wasn’t just campaigning for change, as I’d been doing at Which? and subsequently, to a lesser extent, at a national law firm, but an organisation directly helping people secure access to justice in often profoundly important areas.

Since joining the board I have developed an even greater respect for the work PLP does with the bare minimum of resources but totally dedicated staff.  And this work is set to become more and more important in the light of budget cuts that threaten the services many individuals and communities rely on.

Public officials have unenviable decisions about what will be cut, but the difficulty of their task is not an excuse to ignore people’s rights and entitlements.  Coupled with the significant cuts being proposed in the scope of legal aid there is a real danger that some of the most vulnerable groups in society will suffer disproportionately.

Which is where PLP comes in.  We have a unique blend of research, training and casework enabling us to influence policy makers and decision makers across government.  It is designed to help improve access to public law remedies and establish important principles to protect the most disadvantaged from poor decisions by both local and national organisations.

The focus of our recent research has been the judicial review process and how claims are concluded.  We are now working with Essex University on a major project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, looking at the outcomes for claimants and whether judgements change legislation and practice.

We recently supported the charity Medical Justice to bring a case about the UK Border Agency’s ‘exceptions policy’, which involves giving some migrants less than the standard 72 hours notice of removal.  These often include vulnerable people at risk of suicide or self harm and unaccompanied children.  The government said those due to be removed had ‘effective access to the courts’, but the High Court quashed the policy, saying the practical difficulties in getting legal assistance meant those affected had no ‘adequate right to justice’.  The government is appealing the decision.

In another example, PLP, working with the Law Centres Federation, discovered local authorities were systematically passing young homeless people from one department to another, often refusing to help them at all.  This in contradiction of the law stating social services are responsible for homeless 16 and 17 year olds and authorities must provide a package of support, not just housing.  PLP helped support and train advisers working with homeless children to ensure they were properly accommodated.

These cases barely scratch the surface of PLP’s work, but they illustrate the impact this small organisation has year after year.  By ensuring access to justice isn’t just a slogan but a reality, PLP has more than demonstrated its worth.  It is a great achievement to have been doing this for 21 years and I am honoured to sit on the board of such an important and influential organisation.  As Sir Henry Brooke, PLP patron, put it “if the Public Law Project did not exist, someone would have to invent it – quickly”