“Simpler justice”: reforming legal aid

Legal is under attack again

The consultation to legal aid reform began on 15 November 2010 and will end on 14 February 2011. All the relevant documents to the consultation can be viewed on the Ministry of Justice’s website here.

The proposals will cut the legal aid budget by £350 million per annum by the year 2015 when the “Coalition” government will no longer be in power. When the Labour Party, “new Labour”, had moved to batter legal aid with Lord Carter of Coles’s report on legal aid procurement it was not good enough for the Tories who cried for an “American style public defender scheme”.

Labour’s attack on access to justice was most expertly explained by the Independent’s Johaan Hari here. He said all that he did and there is no point in expanding upon it here. Instead, for the sake of brevity one can say that the present crisis is much worse.

“Why bring bring something from America which doesn’t work?” asked the simple people of England. There were no reassuring answers to that question. And now that they have the chance the mostly Conservative government, unopposed by their Liberal partners, is set to destroy the proud tradition which this country has for access to justice.

Kenneth Clarke the Justice Secretary has proudly announced that the cuts will result in half a million fewer civil cases. But the way that the government is achieving this end is by limiting the people who have a civil claim or matter which they might want to pursue but will not be able to as they can’t afford a lawyer and now they won’t have access to one at all it seems.

Mr Clarke stated that:

“I propose to introduce a more targeted civil and family scheme which will discourage people from resorting to lawyers whenever they face a problem, and instead encourage them to consider more suitable methods of dispute resolution.”

The problem with this statement is that it does consider at all who can, and who cannot, have access to good lawyer in this country. When Labour “reorganised”, meaning killed, legal aid under the aegis of Lord Carter the socialist lawyer crowd shouted “but it is only £35 per person per annum.” And they were right indeed, a small sum of money to pay for justice which must be ensured for democracy to work. But then the Conservatives don’t believe in democracy, they only want a plutocracy. And they seem hell bent to have it too.

The reforms will affect the many areas of the law. Funds will be cut for a wide range of civil cases which include:

  • Divorce
  • Welfare benefits
  • School exclusion appeals
  • Employment
  • Immigration (without detention)
  • Clinical negligence
  • Personal injury

However, legal aid funding will not be curtailed completely for:

  • Asylum cases
  • Mental health cases
  • Debt
  • Housing matters (where a person’s home is at immediate risk)
  • Family law cases  ( where domestic violence, forced marriage or child abduction is involved)

The Justice Secretary Mr Clarke also announced that legal aid will continue for mediation, its only litigation he is opposed to.

Under the present  regime, if one has assets worth less than £8,000 one qualifies for legal aid. Those who have £3,000 pay nothing and others between £3,000-£8,000 expected to make a contribution.

Under Mr Clarke’s recommended new system, people with assets worth more than £1,000 will be required to pay at least £100 towards their legal costs. Mr Clarke has also set out his desire to cut fees paid in civil and family cases “by 10% across the board”. He as suggested like cuts in relation to experts’ fees.

In order to “contain” costs arising from of the most expensive criminal cases, Mr Clarke announced that the government planned the introduction of a single fixed fee for a guilty plea which would be based on fee rates in magistrates’ courts.

Mr Clarke hid behind the argument that had Labour come to power they would have done it too. He described the above impediments to access to justice as a “simpler justice system” which was “crucial”.

About Asad Ali Khan, BA, MSc, MA, LL.B (Hons), LL.M

Senior Partner, Khan & Co, Barristers-at-Law
This entry was posted in Access to Justice, Asylum, Legal Aid, Ministry of Justice, Persecution and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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