Legal aid: Is the tide turning?

Posted by Rachel Robinson on 05 September 2013

For many months now – ever since the Ministry of Justice first embarked upon its misconceived crusade to cut legal aid and decimate access to justice in this country – we and others have been urging Chris Grayling to think again. Digesting the Lord Chancellor’s statement in the House of Commons this morning, it seems he may have listened.

Presenting the Government’s revised criminal legal aid proposals, the Justice Secretary revealed he has dropped plans to introduce price competitive tendering (PCT) across the board. PCT would have driven down the quality of legal services, with already over-stretched professionals either priced out of the market or burdened with the impossible task of delivering more for less.

Elsewhere, there has been a climbdown on proposals to harmonise advocacy fees. Two options are now being considered: a new scheme put forward by the Bar Council, which would largely mirror provision for prosecutors, and another which would harmonise some fees but differentiate between guilty pleas and fully-contested trials. Trial fees would still decrease over the course of the trial, but a bottom limit would be introduced. Both options are a big improvement on the disastrous original proposals and show the Government is at last engaging with professionals and groups like Liberty, who have long warned against moves which would undermine fair trial protections.

On the civil side there is cause for renewed hope on Judicial Review. In a belated but welcome rethink of irresponsible and misleading assertions, the Lord Chancellor has announced that another consultation is “imminent”. We will continue the fight to protect Judicial Review as our bulwark against state abuse and neglect.

The turnaround follows a sustained fightback against the original proposals and thoughtful, powerful interventions from MPs across the political spectrum. During yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate, Liberal Democrat President Tim Farron and Dr Julian Huppert, Chair of the Liberal Democrat Committee on Home Affairs, Justice and Equalities, expressed serious concerns. Dr Huppert argued that “we don’t want cut price justice”. And former Conservative Solicitor General, Sir Edward Garnier QC, stressed that cuts could place greater burdens on other areas of the Ministry of Justice’s budget and adversely impact upon the most downtrodden in our society.

Regrettably it wasn’t all good news today. The arbitrary, unfair residency test remains – although new exceptions for young children and the vulnerable, and for cases involving an individual’s liberty, are welcome improvements. And most prison law cases will still be excluded – leaving prisoners with disabilities and mental health issues set to be priced out of justice and unable to seek redress for mistreatment.

This has serious implications for us all. The original plans would have wrecked proud fair trial safeguards and reduced accountability of the powerful. As Sir Edward pointed out yesterday, these are notions which are central to the civilised nature of this country. Today’s change in direction on criminal legal aid is a great start. After all, this is our criminal justice system; not the budget airline market. We must not sacrifice our finest traditions and drive down quality in pursuit of short-sighted savings. The fight for fairness goes on.

Campaign reference: 

Access to Justice

Rachel Robinson

Rachel Robinson

Liberty
Policy and Advocacy Manager