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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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