Tag Archives: legal aid

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)

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Stop playing roulette with legal aid!

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.