On 23 April 2013 I gave a short talk at the Westminster Policy Forum on the “future market for publicly funded legal services”. The event was a timely one. It is now a little over three weeks since the cuts to legal aid contained within the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 came into force. And to add insult to injury we now have a further round of cuts to defend against, contained in the misleadingly titled consultation paper “Transforming legal aid: delivering a more credible and efficient system”.
Among the more egregious of the proposals in the consultation paper are plans to all but scrap legal aid for prisoners, to make legal aid subject to a “residence test” – excluding swathes of migrants from the protection of the law – and to restrict the right of the citizen to hold the state to account through the medium of judicial review. The proposals represent Daily Mail politics at their worst.
The paper also proposes cuts which threaten the continued viability of firms and barristers practising in criminal, civil and family legal aid. If you have not done so already, please do read the consultation and consider responding by the 4 June deadline. Believe me, there is something in there for everyone.
Against this backdrop I spoke, on behalf of the Young Legal Aid Lawyers, about the impact which I think these cuts will have on junior lawyers. Those solicitors and barristers, committed to social justice, who are just setting out on careers in legal aid. My genuine worry is that the effect of these cuts – as well as the obvious and devastating impact they will have on the clients we work with – will be that we do not have a next generation of legal aid lawyers willing and able to carry on this socially vital work.
Of course, in the context of a seminar considering the future of legal aid, my contribution was just one small part of the picture. Others spoke eloquently on the impact of the cuts on families who can no longer get representation; on the need to provide affordable legal advice for those of modest means; the effect of the cuts on law centres; and the difficulties in providing telephone advice to profoundly vulnerable individuals.
However, the dominant theme to emerge from the seminar was the need to monitor the impact of these cuts. How are they affecting the vulnerable individuals who we work with? And, equally importantly, are they actually saving money or are they a false economy?
This is not a new idea. During the parliamentary debates on legal aid, Citizens Advice, the Law Society and Law Centres Federation all produced compelling evidence that the cuts would represent a false economy. An obvious practical example would be a family, denied of basic advice on welfare benefits, who are evicted from their home for rent arrears and end up being accommodated by social services at far greater cost to the taxpayer. For the most part this evidence was dismissed out of hand by the Government, with criticisms of the methodology employed or the vested interests of the groups involved. These criticisms that miss the point entirely.
So why rehash this idea now? Well, let us put aside moral, human and ideological arguments for a moment. If these cuts were justified by the need to cut public spending, then if they are not achieving that objective, they must be reconsidered. And section 9 of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act provides the mechanism to do so. Responsible governance demands nothing less. To my way of thinking – given the criticisms that were levelled at the research I mention above and the public interest in resolving this – it should be incumbent on the Government to undertake this monitoring and analysis. But unless and until this happens it is the task of legal aid lawyers to take up the baton. To remember and record each client who was turned away. Each person who could not be helped. This is something for which we all need to take responsibility.