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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.