Justice for sale but who pays for the cost?
Justice, the bedrock of our society is for sale under the Government’s latest plan to sell legal aid contracts to the highest bidders. Lawyers across England protested yesterday outside Parliament against the Government’s proposals to cut legal aid for the most vulnerable.
Among the latest controversial proposals to slash public spending, the Government intends to introduce price-competitive tendering for criminal legal aid work. Solicitors firms will bid for legal aid contracts against leading competitors such as haulage firm Eddie Stobart and supermarket chains who aim to establish a legal arm to their business enterprise.
Legal aid contracts will most likely be given to firms who will do the work at the lowest rate. The simple fact is the majority of high street solicitors firms cannot afford to bid against lucrative firms. It is expected high street solicitors firms will perish from 1,600 to 400. ‘The average junior criminal lawyer at present earns slightly above the minimum wage – hardly fat-cat lawyers’ said Frances Trevena, barrister at Tooks Chambers.
There will not only be a reduction in the numbers of solicitors firms but also a reduction in the quality of representation. Under the proposals legal advice need only be ‘satisfactory’ – not excellent or even good. In any event there is no incentive for lawyers to provide outstanding legal representation when cases are assigned to the cheapest lawyer rather than the best. The Government’s proposals have been labeled an attack on the quality of representation where the overriding principle of justice has been replaced with profit.
The proposals are not only an attack on quality of representation but also an ‘appalling attack on client choice’, according to Robin Murray, vice-chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association. The proposed tendering system will mean clients can no longer choose their own solicitor instead cases will be allocated at random. If your case is assigned to a haulage firm rather than solicitors firm – tough luck – unless you have the money to pay for representation privately.
But the target of these cuts are not those who can afford to pay privately for representation, they are the most poor, who without legal aid would have no representation and no means of access to justice, a principle which should be available to all, regardless of class, wealth or ethnicity. Under the Government’s proposals legal aid will no longer be available to all. The proposals aim to remove legal aid from a large number of prisoners who may for example have a claim against their treatment in prison.
Access to legal aid for immigrants, specifically the most recent arrivals in the UK, will also be curtailed. In practice this means that the most marginalized are penalized. It is not hard to envisage a situation where a young girl trafficked into the country for the purposes of sexual exploitation who may have suffered the most horrendous acts of inhumanity, may not be entitled to legal aid under the Government’s proposals and will not therefore, have access to justice.
Lord Gifford Q.C. head of 1 Mitre Court Buildings, author of the Passionate Advocate and founder of the first Law Centre in North Kensington spoke out against the Government’s proposals, ‘we worked to ensure that the services of the best lawyers were available to the poorest client. We made a reality of the ideal of justice for all. I am sickened to see that this ideal, which is fundamental to a society based on the rule of law, is now at risk from proposals, which will create gross injustice for those who cannot pay for a lawyer.’
Legal aid was introduced back in the 1940s as one of the pillars of the welfare state. The aim was to provide a vital safety net for everyone including the underprivileged. As Winston Churchill once said ‘the treatment of crime and criminals’ was ‘one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country’. The very same system, which was once supported by the public and envied by countries across the world, has ‘lost much of its credibility with the public’ according to Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary.
Today, political rhetoric has changed. Rather than supporting a human rights agenda, policy proposals are used to feed the Government’s anti-human rights agenda. Discourse dictates that the poor are viewed as unworthy of a safety net funded by the public pursue, whether welfare benefits or legal aid. Needless to say there is a real risk that our country will soon fail the test of civilisation that Churchill warned about.Legal Aid
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