Justice out of reach

Posted by Rachel Robinson on 02 April 2013

“Denial of legal protection to the poor litigant who cannot afford to pay is one enemy of the rule of law”. So said the late, great Lord Bingham; writing in 2011. Who knows what the former Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice and senior law lord would make of the savage cuts to legal aid which came into force yesterday via the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. In one fell swoop the Government has placed access to justice firmly beyond many who need it most.

Funding has been scrapped for entire areas of advice and representation, with the majority of family, immigration, employment, debt, welfare benefits and education cases now outside the scope of the system. Society’s most vulnerable will be hardest hit – children; families struggling with debt; refugees who have fled persecution and seek reunions with family members. And those with disabilities, who account for nearly two thirds of legally-aided clients in the welfare system, will be disproportionately affected.

With fundamental freedoms often on the line in so many of the affected areas, such extensive cuts will severely weaken human rights protections for us all. Breaches will likely go unchallenged because victims cannot afford the fight. For our treasured rights and freedoms to be meaningful, they simply have to be practically enforceable.

The Government’s argument is that many legally-aided claims are either unnecessary or open to alternative resolution other than litigation. But evidence has suggested otherwise. The majority of social welfare legal aid cases handled by the Citizen’s Advice Bureau result in positive outcomes for clients. Advice UK research reveals that much of the demand at its Nottingham agencies is down to public administration failures. And the Community Links advice service has said that many claims arise because of errors at the Department for Work and Pensions.

Instead of addressing such glaring quality issues, Ministers have pursued a course which will create insurmountable hurdles to access to justice and alarming gaps in protection. This removal of legal assistance also comes at the very same time as sweeping reforms to the welfare benefits system. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of such changes, they will inevitably lead to widespread uncertainty amongst claimants themselves and those charged with administering the new system.

But the true impact of these cuts goes much further than the likely individual injustices which will prevail. The ever-present prospect of legal intervention is the surest way of securing a society where respect for human rights, equality and due process guides the behaviour of our decision-makers. Alongside other assaults on the rule of law such as Secret Courts and worrying judicial review overhaul, legal aid upheaval risks leaving big business, Government and other members of the rich and powerful elite that bit freer to act with impunity.

Rachel Robinson

Rachel Robinson

Policy and Advocacy Manager