Friday, 17 May 2013

The government’s purge of legal aid crosses the border into authoritarianism and tyranny

The overwhelming majority of people in this country accept that in order to reduce the deficit, public spending must be brought under control. Where the cuts are made is the contentious issue. But one area where we simply cannot make cuts, if we truly are a liberal, freedom-loving, and civilised nation, is to the legal aid budget.

Yet this is precisely what this government are doing. The Coalition proposes to cut the legal aid budget by a third.

Cuts to the civil legal aid budget, which came in to effeect last month, mean many cases, including employment, clinical negligence and housing problems are no longer eligible for funding.

Now, whilst controversial and contentious cuts to for example health, education and welfare do not contend with the idea that we are a free country, cuts to legal aid sends out a horrific message to freedom lovers such as myself, and all who cannot afford to be tried fairly. The reality is only a few can afford the legal costs to enforce contracts and against criminal prosecution. This is perhaps an inevitable consequence of economic freedom- where we are free to legitimately pursue and generate wealth and enjoy the fruits of our own labour.

The only way to wed the pursuit of economic liberty with wider justice is by a basic notion of equality before the law, through the equal access to justice .This means that the state must fund the means of contract enforcement and free and fair trial-legal costs, for those who cannot afford it. If the state fails to fulfil this contingent function, then we simply seize to be free.

The Ministry of Justice spokeswoman, reported in the Telegraph, said: "At around £2 billion a year we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world. We firmly believe it is an essential part of the justice system, but can never lose sight of the fact it is paid for by taxpayers and resources are not limitless.

"Legal aid will continue to be provided to those who most need it, such as where domestic violence is involved, where people's life or liberty is at stake or the loss of their home. But in cases like divorce, courts should be a last resort, not first. Evidence shows that mediation can often be more successful and less expensive for all involved”

This outrageously misses a very crucial point about legal liberty. Everybody has a right to take any grievances they have, which have invoked legal ramifications, to court. Everybody in a liberal system has an absolute, inalienable right to free and fair trial in a free and liberal country. It is not for the state to decide which type of cases constitute the in ‘most need, nor is it right to blanket legislate for access to legal aid for divorce cases to try and engineer other means of resolution.

In a free and fair country each and every single individual has equal legal worth and entitlement to opportunity to bring about legal justice. The government picking and choosing which cases are most worthwhile undermines this very premise of legal equality-So fundamental to the notion of liberty.

Having cut the civil legal aid budget by £320m, the Ministry of Justice proposes to cut the criminal legal aid budget too, by £220m. Legal contracts are to be based on competitive tendering. One of the outcomes of the reform and cut to the budget is defendants on legal aid will no longer be offered a choice for who can be their solicitor.

The right to a lawyer of your choice, regardless of your income, race, gender or nationality, is an underpinning condition of a free and fair justice system. Having both a sense of, and access to choice over ones legal representative, who is charged with fighting for justice is paramount to basic legal equality and liberty. When this choice is removed and legal representation is essentially imposed on a passive defendant by the state-and that is if a defendant can still access legal aid at all, our justice system becomes unacceptably authoritarian.

In fact, the potential of the extent to the erosion of legal liberty is even more dangerous. Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s reforms allow in some cases for the sole choice of lawyer for a defendant on legal aid to also be a representative for the organisation with an interest in ensuring a prosecution.  The company Serco for example, provides prison security guards. Serco is one company bidding for the legal contracts with the Legal Aid Agency. Serco lawyers could feasibly be pressured to underrepresent their clients, for the greater gain of extra business for their security guards in prisons. The scope for such vested interests in the justice system, after Grayling’s reforms is incredibly dangerous. This is a scenario you would expect to see in a Middle Eastern tyrannical state, not in a championed beacon of Western liberty such as our great free nation
In an age to austerity cuts are both necessary and inevitable, but nevertheless, the very basis of our liberal and democratic country cannot be so savagely undermined and sacrificed in the pursuit of deficit reduction. We are talking about a budget of £2 billion in an overall public finance budget of £592 billion (£502 billion if we are to wipe out the budget deficit without an increase in revenue). That is less than 0.5% of our revenue-a price worth funding, perhaps more than any other, in the promotion of equal opportunity to legal justice-the bedrock of a free and democratic country.

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