Beecham could have been talking about the NHS but in fact he was talking about legal
aid, introduced by the Legal Aid and Advice Act in 1949, and effectively
dismantled by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offender’s Act 2012.
before the last election I scanned the manifestos of the main parties to see
what was in store for legal aid in this country – already under significant
threat. All three were silent on the
subject. Bear in mind that Labour were
in power at the time, and probably shy of emphasising their lack of intention
to improve access to justice any time soon.
And no-one expected the Conservatives to turn the tide.
on 5 years. How are the parties proposing
to protect access to justice this time?
I’ve read the manifestos and can report … nothing of any significance. With the honourable exception of the Green
Party that proposes to restore legal aid funding. And the SNP because Scotland
has kept Legal Aid anyway, along with free university education and a host of
rest? In the Labour Party Manifesto,
there’s one sentence that might conceivably hint at an intention to restore
Legal Aid. ‘We will make sure that access to legal representation, a
cornerstone of our democracy, is not determined by personal wealth, but remains
available to those that need it’. Given
that it’s already no longer available to those that need it, one can’t help
feeling sceptical. There’s lots of talk
about victims of domestic violence and the Manifesto does say that access to
Legal Aid for victims will be widened. Far
more space in the Manifesto is devoted to support for the Leveson Report with
its plan to make justice accessible for anyone libelled in the press. But those who need access to justice are far
more likely to be worried about losing their children or their home than they
are about libel.
about the Conservatives? After all, this
is the party (with support from their coalition partners) that effectively killed
off civil Legal Aid.
are references to ‘real fairness’, the protection of ‘British values’ and, as
might be expected, lots on the NHS. What
to justice is vitally important to all of us.
Founded on the principle that no one should ever have to worry about
their ability to pay for legal advice, it is a profound expression of our
values as a nation.'
not really. That was a paragraph about
the NHS and I’ve substituted a few of the words. But it could have been about access to
justice, and might well have been if anyone cared.
Conservatives also want to champion equal rights and correct wrongs while
Labour plans to ‘stand up for citizens’ individual rights’. But how precisely is all this to be achieved
if no one can afford to go to court to exercise their rights in the first
then there are the Liberal Democrats. I
would remind you that Simon Hughes was the Minister of Justice in the last
Government. They’re going to carry out ‘an
immediate review of civil Legal Aid … to ensure Legal Aid is available to all those
who need it’. Why do I find this so hard
to believe? Probably because they go on
to talk about the provision of civil justice online and expansion of mediation (that
old fig leaf) and to ‘develop a strategy that will deliver advice and legal
support to help people with everyday problems like personal debt and social
welfare issues’. Always a clue that they have no intention of doing anything more
than moving a few deck chairs around the place.
How have we come to
this? It’s not just the fault of disingenuous
politicians aided and abetted by the media.
We lawyers haven’t been strong enough and something very precious has
been lost on our watch. The NHS has
become a national treasure that no one dares criticize. Legal aid needed reform, of course it
did. It had been neglected and run by
people who should have known better for a number of years. But the solution was to reform it, not destroy
it. Imagine if we abolished the NHS
because it’s terribly expensive (true) and filled with incompetent managers
(equally true). There would be a
national outcry. After the war, there
was a genuine sense that our citizens needed protection from oppressors, including
oppressive governments. We seem to have
lost that sense of justice, and it’s tragic.
The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.