Yesterday’s Save Justice demonstration outside the Ministry of Justice brought together thousands of people campaigning to save the vital services provided to some of the most vulnerable in society by legal aid lawyers. Among the speakers was Stephen Knafler QC, whose speech is reproduced here.
One of the saddest things about all of this, is that the government is removing the last resort, the final recourse, for desperate people in a crisis. Because when the school can’t help, when the social workers can’t do any more, the housing officer’s hands are tied, the prison officers say no, the hospital says we have no money, when the phone calls remain unanswered and the letters all say “no”, when all hope has gone, that’s where we come in. The only chance that some of the most vulnerable people in our community have ever had. Very often, the last chance that ordinary people have, whose lives have taken a disastrous turn.
How often have dedicated housing lawyers achieved the seemingly impossible and kept families saddled with debt in their home, and in the process, kept the families together and children in their schools?
How often, after years of negative decisions by social workers, when all the efforts of local charities, and the local MP, have come to nothing, have skilful community care lawyers been able to show that, yes, there is a legal duty to help that child, still in school, care for his disabled parent? Or, despite the budget cuts, there still is a duty to provide care to an elderly man or woman, unable to cope.
Or take the family lawyer, who protects her client from domestic violence, when the social workers and police can’t, and obtains safe housing for her and her children, when the housing department won’t budge?
Or the social security lawyer, who understands the unbelievably complex system we have, and is able to win the tough fight for basics – so severely disabled people can be helped to get out of bed, get dressed and go to the toilet, so children living in poverty have at least basic food.
The prison lawyer, the last life-line for the mentally ill adult and also the child in detention. And I do mean life-line. Unlawful decisions about segregation, the denial of appropriate care and treatment, disciplinary punishments and the like can cost the lives of vulnerable adults and children who feel targeted by the state and abandoned by the community.
And the immigration lawyer. When people lose everything: their jobs, savings, home and country, often their families, often their health, when they finally reach a safe haven, for example this country, the immigration lawyer represents a big part of the fundamental decency that our community continues to show to some of the most desperate people on the planet, many of them children, on their own, without any adult to look after them.
These are not exceptional cases. This is our day to day work. Over the years, we have helped repair thousands and thousands of damaged lives, when all else has failed and there is no other recourse. That has benefitted the wider community socially and economically also. For example, work done by the Citizen’s Advice Bureaux, shows that every £1 spent on housing, debt, employment and benefits advice has saved the state between £2.34 and £8.80. Also, as Judges and others are pointing out, the cost to the public of the courts having to deal with litigants in person, in civil cases, greatly exceeds the savings planned to result from cutting back on lawyers.
One is driven to the conclusion that the aim is not to save money but fundamentally to undermine our legal system.
Consider how it has traditionally operated. True it is, that most firms have got bigger, to achieve economies of scale. But it remains the case that the great majority of publicly funded work is carried out by a diverse group of relatively small, independent organisations – solicitors’ firms, law centres, CAB, charities and other NGOs. This is not chance but the evolution of a cost effective and successful network, providing for independent grass roots advice, and also specialist advice, as needed.
There needs to be local organisations, connected with the communities around them, if vulnerable individuals and marginal communities, are to have access to justice.
There have to be local organisations, independent from the state, and independent from big business, if the justice system is to inspire confidence in clients and make the end result – win or lose – credible.
And there have to be local organisations, so clients have some choice of advisers. Legal advisers offer not only professional skills but also a personal relationship, involving trust and empathy. For that reason, clients need a degree of choice and choice promotes healthy competition.
But all of this is suffering the death of a thousand cuts. Legal aid rates have been cut every year for over 20 years, by reference to inflation, and last year there was an additional cut of over 10%. Many kinds of work have been taken out of scope. More and more people have been excluded from eligibility. And the consequences have been grim. Over 2000 legal aid firms and law centres have gone out of business – that’s about 40% of all providers. The 3 big charitable organisations – Law for All, Refugee & Migrant Justice and the Immigration Advisory Service – have all closed down. Shelter has closed over 1/3 of its advice agencies. The British Red Cross, CAB and Law Centres are making redundancies and many branches have closed. Expert witnesses are leaving in droves. The junior end, at least, of the criminal Bar faces extinction, imminently, with civil barristers shortly to follow.
All of this means that fewer and fewer vulnerable individuals are getting the last resort legal help they need when the crisis arrives. And it also means that those few who remain eligible have been getting a much reduced service. But the current proposals represent a quantum leap into the abyss.
As things stand, in crime, and then in civil, we are likely to see the government awarding big money contracts to big business organisations to provide publicly funded legal services. Organisations such as G4S, SERCO and Stobbarts have expressed an interest. Others are sure to follow.
Fine companies though they may be, in some respects, it seems almost beyond belief that any government would wish to hand over responsibility for managing an important part of the justice system to a large business organisation whose only interest lies in making a profit for its share-holders and securing future big money contracts.
I leave to one side the obvious practical consequences and concerns about the quality of legal advice to be provided, the lack of choice, lack of access and so on and so on. And I leave aside all the consequential failures that will ensue, in not holding public bodies to account, all the damaged lives that will go un-repaired, all the crises that will not be averted, the knock-on economic costs of that, the soaring cost of administering the courts without sensible input from lawyers acting in the public interest and so on.
What about the principle of justice? Something we all believe in. As part of our democracy. Surely, you cannot have justice without the independent lawyer, free of fear and favour. The local Law Centre, the local firm of solicitors, the barrister – we all do have and are seen to have that independence. But a large business organisation? No. In this day and age, the relationship between government and big business is simply too close. Government already pays big business organisations large sums of money to provide services to, and sometimes to run, the public bodies whose decisions are very often in question. And the continued involvement of big business in legal provision depends on them making large profits and securing big money contracts. That is not consistent with independence or the appearance of independence. The whole model is fundamentally flawed.
As lawyers, professionals who care about the welfare of their clients, and believers in justice, we must do everything we can to avert this. That means, of course, entering into a positive and constructive dialogue with the government – because we can all agree that public money needs to be used as efficiently and sensibly as possible, especially when times are hard. But we have a strong case that the government’s current proposals fail the test of reason, compassion, justice and value for money. All we can do, and what we can do, is advance that case to everyone who will listen. If it is true, as I believe it to be true, that real value for money, reason, compassion and justice do all remain values that are important to everyone, then our defence of legal aid, for the sake of our clients, will surely succeed.