Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Legal aid

"What we are approaching, if we are not already there, is a system in which if someone is poor, destitute, marginalised and up against it, they will get no help and no justice and will continue to suffer."

These were the words of Jeremy Corbyn MP in the last major debate in the House of Commons chamber on the subject of legal aid, sixteen months ago. It was scheduled for after lunch on a Thursday, a time when most MPs are already heading back to their constituencies, and not attended by the Lord Chancellor, the responsible minister. It took Sarah Teather, a Liberal Democrat MP freed of government office or the need to contest a further term in the house, to bring the debate. Even then, it centred on criminal legal aid, with occasional reference to some high-profile cases, and the effect of centrally contracting-out legal aid on local solicitors' firms, to the exclusion of civil legal aid.

But it is the removal of funds for a vast swathe of civil cases (details in this pdf), and the institution of an impersonal interface for those clients who do qualify, which is more likely to affect the ordinary citizen. Helen Ceri Clarke, our local party chair, who works in Peter Black AM's regional office, confirms that a huge amount of casework comes from people on the wrong end of decisions from landlords, the DWP and so on, for whom they have to engage lay advocates because they are no longer entitled to free professional legal assistance. It is surprising that more MPs, whose constituency offices must surely handle many such cases, are not shouting about this scandal.

On so many grounds - fairness, civil liberty and localism - Liberal Democrats are the most fitting instrument to reverse not only the changes brought in not only by this government but also the previous one. I hope that there will be a manifesto commitment to do so.

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