Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Legal aid

One of the most shaming things about the coalition is that it is bearing down more on legal aid than New Labour and the Thatcher/Major administrations. It is also a shame that the motion below had to be introduced to the agenda for the Glasgow conference of Liberal Democrats by means of the emergency motion procedure rather than being included in the substantive agenda.

Conference notes:
A. The Party’s current policy on Legal Aid, adopted overwhelmingly at the Sheffield Party Conference in 2011.
B. The pressures upon public spending faced by the government, which is substantially the result of serious failings in economic policy by the previous Labour Government.
C. The widespread criticism of proposals in the MoJ’s consultation paper on Legal Aid including an unsustainable model for Price Competitive Tendering of criminal defence services, and substantial reduction in the number of suppliers, and that whilst big changes have been made to the proposals the proposals on tendering to deal with objections to lowest bidder ‘cut price’ justice, fundamental concerns remain about the sustainability of the supplier base in light of proposed fee cuts of 17 per cent.
D. Scrutiny by the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) of proposed changes to civil legal aid, including the proposed introduction of a residence test for civil legal aid claimants, restrictions on the scope of legal aid available to prisoners and on payment for preparation work in judicial review cases, and the JCHR request for the Secretary of State for Justice delay the proposals until the Committee completed its work and reported back to parliament.
E. That the Ministry of Justice is proposing to create significant new demands on expenditure in prisons policy, at the same time as making cuts to legal aid.
Conference believes that:
i) The provision of a high quality justice system and proper access to justice are fundamental obligations for a modern democratic state.
ii) The human rights implications of the changes to legal aid being investigated by the JCHR are of fundamental significance for the right of access to justice and the rule of law.
iii) No further cuts in the provision of Legal Aid and the availability of local justice should take place without ensuring that any such proposals are first properly trialled and assessed to demonstrate that there will be no adverse effect upon access to justice and the quality of legal services provided to those who require assistance by means of Legal Aid.
iv) New areas of Ministry of Justice expenditure cannot be justified while legal aid is being cut so drastically.
Conference calls for:
1. Proposed changes to criminal or civil legal to be stayed pending thorough consultation and scrutiny to ensure there will be no adverse effect upon:
a) Access to justice and the availability of local justice.
b) The quality of legal services provided to those who cannot afford to pay privately.
c) The public purse through unintended consequences such as prisoners being detained for longer than necessary or defendants suffering miscarriages of justice.
d) Public confidence through the removal of the means to ensure public accountability, fairness and equality before the law regardless of means.
e) Human rights issues as identified by JCHR, and that the Committee’s concerns be acted upon in full.

It is sad that Lord McNally, speaking for the government, retreated to the well-worn argument that he needed to find over £100 million in savings. Speakers before and after him emphasised that there were savings easily to be made in the current system. For instance, Graham Colley of Liberal Democrat Lawyers pointed out that 45% of legal aid goes to directors defending fraud charges. A simple scheme of compulsory insurance for directors would take that cost out at a stroke.

The point was made that cost comparisons with other jurisdictions were misleading because we have an adversarial, not a Roman-Dutch, court system. When all costs are taken into account, we spend less on legal aid than the equivalent budgets in Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands among others.

Any cost savings in legal aid would almost certainly be outweighed by increased expenditure in other parts of the system.

I cannot do justice to the debate here. If you haven't already seen it, watch it when it becomes available on iPlayer.

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