No other public service has suffered the same level of cuts as civil legal aid. Enough is enough, says Steve Hynes
Theresa May had a simply dreadful general election campaign and for many Jeremy Corbyn emerged the hero of the hour. The election result, an unexpected hung parliament, has changed the political calculations on what to expect next on legal policy.
Prison reform was one of the casualties of the slimmed down Queen’s Speech, but it looks like business as usual for the court reform programme. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has been busy working away at the digital upgrade of the courts and the policy enjoys cross-party support. With the reduced commons majority the government might have to make some concessions around the legal advice available to support the public using the service. There is also likely to be a bitter fight over their proposals to reform the law on whiplash injuries.
While the prime minister managed to get the Queen’s Speech agreed, a confident Labour opposition is arguing that the government will not last and a general election is only months away. Corbyn believes that the public mood is shifting against austerity towards greater expenditure on public services. There are signs that ministers are responding to this, with the chancellor coming under pressure from cabinet members to allow higher pay increases for public sector workers.
Assuming Corbyn was elected in a snap poll, this could be a good outcome for access to justice policy. Speaking to people who know him well, he comes across as someone with a deep understanding of the importance of access to justice and legal aid. He is proud that his grandfather was a ’poor man’s lawyer’ in west London. At his constituency surgeries he still makes time to deal with his constituents’ problems with benefits, housing and other social welfare law issues.
Ruth Hayes is the director of the Labour leader’s local Law Centre in Islington. She says that Corbyn has always taken a keen interest in the Law Centre’s work and recalls him attending an event on the impact of the LASPO cuts at which, she says: ‘He took time to listen to clients’ really distressing stories about how, the then proposed cuts would affect them.’
Lord Bach, the former legal aid minister, is full of praise for the support Corbyn has given the commission he chairs for the Labour Party on legal aid. Bach expects the report from this to be out ‘before the Labour party conference’, which is in September. He believes that there will be a consensus around the ‘radical proposals’ which he will unveil, as ‘access to justice should be a legal right’.
It seems an early general election is the last thing that the Conservatives want. They have to recover from the election result, to regroup, and believe their deal with the DUP will give them the breathing space to do so. The two-year agreement also allows time for Brexit to be negotiated, though this process will have an infinite number of potential trigger points for a confidence vote which could bring down the government.
There is a legal cloud hanging over the Conservative/DUP agreement with the pending judicial review but a Corbyn factor is at work here as well. Even if the agreement was found to be in breach of the Good Friday agreement, the realpolitik of the situation is that the DUP would probably rather wait for hell to freeze over before they’d allow the Sinn Fein sympathiser Corbyn any chance of becoming prime minister.
Assuming no general election is called in the near future, access to justice policy will be focused on the review of LASPO. Legal Action Group’s (LAG’s) understanding is that this will go ahead under Dominic Rabb, the new minister with responsibility for legal aid.
Recently the Law Society published a report on the impact of LASPO (‘Access Denied? LASPO four years on: a Law Society review’). The report cites data from the MoJ which estimates 75,000 children and young people have been losing entitlement to legal aid each year as a result of the LASPO cuts. It also refers to figures from the Legal Aid Agency which show that there are advice deserts across the country with little or no provision for housing advice.
The latest figures on legal aid cases published by the MoJ last month show a continuing downward trend in the number of housing and other non-family law cases. The MoJ reports a 3% decrease in housing cases in January to March compared to the same quarter last year. LAG believes a combination of increased bureaucracy and low pay rates means that it is uneconomic for firms to provide civil legal aid and so many people, even if their case qualifies for legal aid, cannot find a lawyer to take it on.
No other public service has suffered the same level of cuts under austerity as civil legal aid. Particularly in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower disaster (see ‘LASPO: why it’s time to listen and review’) and if Corbyn is indeed right about the change in public opinion, the time is ripe for reassessing the need for access to legal services for poor and marginalised communities.
Steve Hynes is the director of Legal Action Group (SHynes@lag.org.uk; www.lag.org.uk). This article was originally published in New Law Journal. See 'Justice denied?', NLJ , 6 January 2017, p 8.