Why Ken Clarke's Justice Bill is fatally flawed

Yesterday's bill will increase crime, cost taxpayers more and block access to civil justice.

The right to legal representation is a fundamental principal of a civilised society, and is a cornerstone of the British legal system. That right is now at risk of being critically undermined, thanks to yesterday's planned cuts of £350m to Legal Aid.

In plain language, what Ken Clarke's Sentencing and Legal Aid Bill means is this: ordinary people - including society's most vulnerable - will be denied their right to legal representation unless they are rich enough to afford it. This is a devastating blow and has manifold implications for all parts of society. Among its victims are women suffering at the hands of abusive partners and millions of patients who each year undergo a bungled operation - both of which had in the past been able to count on legal aid to bring them justice through the courts.

Ill-conceived, socially-shortsighted and profoundly unjust, the government's proposed reforms contain three major flaws that will:

1. Lead to more crime: According to the government's own Impact Assessment, the bill could lead to "increased criminality and damage social cohesion", with 725,000 fewer cases able to pursue justice through the courts

2. Cost taxpayers more than it saves: In knock-on effects for society, the reforms will cost the taxpayer far more than the £350 million the Government claims to be saving. The Citizens Advice Bureau calculates that for every pound spent on social welfare law, up to nine pounds is saved in resolving disputes that could otherwise escalate

3. Block access to justice for all: By taking vast tracts of welfare law out of scope of legal aid, including clinical negligence and family law, these cuts will block access to civil rights for those in greatest need of it

In response, the Law Society has launched "Sound Off For Justice", a campaign to make a big noise for all those that will be silenced in court if the Government's proposals go ahead.

And that could include you. Imagine you are arrested and taken to the police station. You might be entirely innocent and before yesterday you would have been automatically entitled to free advice from a solicitor, which is paid for via the legal aid budget. But no longer: under the new proposals (a sneaky new Clause 12) only those who pass a "means" and "merits" test will be entitled to free assistance. This "credit-rating" approach to justice ignores the simple fact that justice should be free for all.

In this era of austerity, savings need to be made. The Law Society has itself proposed alternative savings of £384m, 10 per cent more than the government. But our proposals would still guarantee access to justice for society's most vulnerable, in cases affecting, victims of abuse, the elderly, homeless and disabled.

Linda Lee is president of the Law Society. Visit soundoffforjustice.org for more information.

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era