Thursday 18 July 2013

The Tory "war on justice"

Legal Aid was created in 1948 as part of the post-war welfare state. The objective was to introduce a measure of equality before the law. The vast majority of the UK population, then and now, believe in the principle that if a person cannot afford to pay for a lawyer to represent them in a court of law, then one should be provided on their behalf, in order to reduce the chances of miscarriages of justice occuring.

The Tory party clearly disagree with the whole idea of using the welfare state to ensure equal access to justice. They only have one propaganda tool to argue that equal access to justice should be abolished, the tiresome appeal to austerity. Legal Aid costs around £2 billion a year. This may seem a lot, however in comparison to other expenditures it is a drop in the ocean. Take Housing Benefit (or the Wealthy Landlord Subsidy - as it should properly be known), that comes in at £22.5 billion a year. The Tory welfare reform minister David Anthony Freud has given assurances to the National Landlord Association that this subsidy will not be reduced. Compared with the potential Housing Benefit savings that could be made through the imposition of rent controls, any money saved through attacking the Legal Aid budget pales into insignificance. Even if Legal Aid were abolished altogether, that would only account for a miniscule 2.2% of the 2012 budget deficit (£90 billion). Trying to eradicate the budget deficit by focusing on the Legal Aid budget instead of the Housing Benefit budget is like trying to save space on a hard drive by erasing text files instead of deleting some of the films you have no intention of ever watching again. Anyone should be able to see that this austerity narrative is just a cover story for the real Tory agenda.

In April 2013 the Legal Aid budget was slashed by £350 million, meaning that all manner of cases will no longer be eligible for Legal Aid. The House of Lords battled against these draconian cuts in Legal Aid but the Tory party managed to win their ideological victory against equal justice with the backing of the so-called Liberal Democrats.

A study by the Law Society found that 80% of British people are now effectively excluded from the justice system in all manner of cases, such as family law, unfair dismissal, personal injury, appealing against draconian government decisions and clinical negligence cases. If the no-win-no-fee merchants don't see the case as a likely win, the individual has the stark choice of either trying to represent themselves in court, or abandoning their pursuit of justice altogether.

As well as the countless miscarriages of justice that will stem from these reforms, there are also signs that the predicted false economies are already happening. The number of people attempting to represent themselves is on the rise, and their lack of procedural legal knowledge is resulting in a huge amount of wasted court time.

The Conservatives have demonstrated their ideological opposition to equal justice, and no amount of transparent austerity propaganda is going to convince thinking people that their legal reforms have anything to do with "targeting resources at the most important cases" as they claim. Instead it has everything to do with creating huge legal advantages for those wealthy enough to afford legal representation. A Tory justice system is one where corporations, wealthy individuals and the Department of Work and Pensions can hire expensive legal teams to easily defeat the amateur self-representation efforts of the ordinary person, no matter what the facts of the case. What the Tories are doing is conducting all-out war on the concept of equal justice.

The BBC peddle a typically pro-government line on the issue, endlessly repeating the Tory justification propaganda without the slightest effort to question the stated motivation for the cuts. They are also utterly clueless. In this article advising people on how to represent themselves in court after the £350 million in Legal Aid cuts in April 2013, they suggest seeking help from the Citizen's Advice Bureau, without the slightest mention of the fact that the Tories simultaneously slashed CAB funding by 86%, so as to ensure that the people they are trying to deny justice to, have nobody else to turn to.

If anyone is still labouring under the fantasy that the Tories are not intent on undermining justice, I suggest you do a little bit of research into secret courts and have a little think about the potential consequences of such totalitarian legislation. If the introduction of secretive courts (where neither the defendant nor their lawyer will be allowed into the courtroom, allowed to know the crimes with which they are being charged, nor be allowed to examine any of the evidence against them) isn't an attack on the basic concept of open justice, then it is hard to imagine what would be.

Anyhow, the Tories are far from finished in their battle to revoke access to justice from us ordinary people in order to turn the British legal system into little more than a plaything for the rich. The Justice Minister Chris Grayling has outlined the next round of Tory reforms to the justice system to a near universal chorus of condemnation from across the legal profession. The Crown Prosecution Service have warned that the next wave of Tory attacks will "undermine the fundamental principles of justice".

The next step in the Tory "war on justice" is to stop paying Legal Aid solicitors for the work that they actually do, and rolling out a system of flat fees. Defence lawyers have warned this will create a perverse financial interest for solicitors to recommend guilty pleas to their clients, regardless of the facts of the case. If your solicitor gets paid the same whether they spend hundreds of hours developing a rock solid case, or for spending a few hours convincing their client to plead guilty (no matter how innocent they are), this perverse financial incentive will inevitably lead to a rise in miscarriages of justice.

The stated objective of this reform is to eradicate hundreds of small local solicitors offices in order to distribute Legal Aid work on large contracts to companies like G4S and Stobart Barristers. In order to make these vast contracts viable, Grayling is insistent that defendants should lose the right to choose their own solicitor.

Some of the minority of Tory MP's that actually give a damn about libertarianism have objected that state-appointed lawyers would be illiberal and against their libertarian conception of Toryism. Grayling's retort to these concerns is that he expects "to make changes that allow a choice of solicitor in the future." His response to grave concerns from within his own party (and the majority of the legal profession) is to press ahead with his plan to revoke the right for people to chose their own legal representatives, just with some nebulous half-commitment to reverse the state-appointed lawyer element at some unspecified future date. If anyone believes that a Tory minister will go against the interests of the large corporations he has just signed monopolistic supply contracts with, I've got a bridge you might be interested in buying.

The only organisations that seem to be willing to speak up in favour of Grayling's plan to introduce flat-fees for state appointed solicitors, are the very firms that look set to gobble up these lucrative contracts. Here's what Trevor Howarth of Stobart Barristers had to say (yes he does use a tortured wagon driver's analogy!):
"We at Stobart are well known for taking out the waste, here that is the duplication of solicitors going to court. There are currently 1,600 legal aid firms; in future there will be 400. At Stobart, we wouldn't use 10 trucks to deliver one product." (source)
I mean who would want freedom to choose their own solicitor from a small local practice with decades of cumulative experience in the legal field in which you require their services, when you could have a state-appointed lawyer from a haulage (Stobart) or private security (G4S) company, with a perverse financial incentive to either talk you into pleading guilty to an offense you didn't commit, or to do as little work as possible to build a coherent defence should you insist that they go against their own financial interests and actually do their job, and defend you?

Anyone that has been following the similar monopolisation process that has been carried out on the court translation services will understand what kind of debacle occurs when the government decides to eradicate the competitive market and replace it with a system of political patronage, where favoured corporations are simply handed a monopoly over the whole service. The deliberate monopolisation of the court translation service has resulted in absolute chaos with over 600 trials abandoned due to Capita's failure to provide translators in the last year alone. The Commons Justice Select Committee described the handling of the contract as "shambolic", yet Grayling is insistent that he will impose similar monopolistic contracts on the much larger Legal Aid budget, no matter what the damage to the fundamental principles of justice.

To crony capitalist stooges like Chris Grayling, as long as corporate behemoths get to fill their boots at the taxpayers' expense; the destruction of market competition, the transparent false economies, the erosion of access to justice and the countless grotesque miscarriages of justice will be more than worth it. In fact, since Legal Aid is restricted to the poor and ordinary, the erosion of access to justice and the dramatic rise in miscarriages of justice will be an added bonus for the Tory party and their cabal of wealthy backers. Not only will they be cashing in with lucrative monopolistic contracts handed out by the so-called justice department, they'll also get to laugh all the way through any cases that actually come to trial where they are up against any of us "uppity plebs". They'll have their expensive team of lawyers, and we'll either be doing an amateurish job of self-representation or we'll be represented by some guy we didn't even want from Eddie Stobart or Group 4 Security, with a perverse financial incentive to do as little work as possible in preparing our defence.

As usual, the Labour party and the majority of the mainstream media are as good as silent on the issue, so it's left up to legal professionals and independent bloggers like myself to explain that these reforms are so incredibly bad that they could only have been designed as part of a deliberate campaign against the concept of equal access to justice.

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More articles from
Secret Courts and the very Illiberal Democrats

Legal Aid cuts: A Tory commodification of justice
Why the Lib-Dems are just as compassionless as the Tories
The Tory contempt for working people
More Tory attacks on employment rights
New justice: A short story
The Tory ideological mission
What is ... a justification narrative?
The contrasting fates of Alan Turing and Lord Sempill
 Guest post: The destruction of Legal Aid

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