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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Labour is launching a stealthy Scottish comeback - thanks to Jeremy Corbyn and the Daily Mail

The Scottish Labour strategy is paying off - and hard evidence that it works may be more plentiful come 8 June 2017

When I suggested to a senior Scottish Labour figure earlier this year that the party was a car crash, he rejected my assertion.

“We’re past that,” he said gloomily. “Now we’re the burnt-out wreck in a field that no-one even notices anymore.”

And yet, just as the election campaign has seen Jeremy Corbyn transformed from an outdated jalopy into Chitty Chitty Bang Bang magically soaring in the polls, Scottish Labour is beginning to look roadworthy again.

And it’s all down to two apparently contradictory forces – Corbyn and The Daily Mail.

Kezia Dugdale’s decision to hire Alan Roden, then the Scottish Daily Mail’s political editor, as her spin doctor in chief last summer was said to have lost her some party members. It may win her some new members of parliament just nine months later.

Roden’s undoubted nose for a story and nous in driving the news agenda, learned in his years at the Mail, has seen Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly forced to defend her government record on health and education in recent weeks, even though her Holyrood administration is not up for election next month.

On ITV’s leaders debate she confessed that, despite 10 years in power, the Scottish education system is in need of some attention. And a few days later she was taken to task during a BBC debate involving the Scottish leaders by a nurse who told her she had to visit a food bank to get by. The subsequent SNP attempt to smear that nurse was a pathetic mis-step by the party that suggested their media operation had gone awry.

It’s not the Tories putting Sturgeon on the defence. They, like the SNP, are happy to contend the general election on constitutional issues in the hope of corralling the unionist vote or even just the votes of those that don’t yet want a second independence referendum. It is Labour who are spotting the opportunities and maximising them.

However, that would not be enough alone. For although folk like Dugdale as a person – as evidenced in Lord Ashcroft’s latest polling - she lacks the policy chops to build on that. Witness her dopey proposal ahead of the last Holyrood election to raise income tax.

Dugdale may be a self-confessed Blairite but what’s powering Scottish Labour just now is Jeremy Corbyn’s more left-wing policy platform.

For as Brexit has dropped down the agenda at this election, and bread and butter stuff like health and education has moved centre stage, Scots are seeing that for all the SNP’s left wing rhetoric, after 10 years in power in Holyrood, there’s not a lot of progressive policy to show for it.

Corbyn’s manifesto, even though huge chunks of it won’t apply in Scotland, is progressive. The evidence is anecdotal at the moment, but it seems some Scots voters find it more attractive than the timid managerialism of the SNP. This is particularly the case with another independence referendum looking very unlikely before the 2020s, on either the nationalists' or the Conservatives' timetable.

Evidence that the Scottish Labour strategy has worked may be more plentiful come 8 June 2017. The polls, albeit with small sample sizes so best approached with caution, have Ian Murray streets ahead in the battle to defend Edinburgh South. There’s a lot of optimism in East Lothian where Labour won the council earlier in May and MSP Iain Gray increased his majority at the Scottish election last year. Labour have chosen their local candidate well in local teacher Martin Whitfield, and if the unionist vote swings behind him he could overhaul sitting MP George Kerevan’s 7,000 majority. (As we learned in 2015, apparently safe majorities mean nothing in the face of larger electoral forces). In East Renfrewshire, Labour's Blair McDougall, the man who led Better Together in 2014, can out-unionist the Tory candidate.

But, while in April, it was suggested that these three seats would be the sole focus of the Scottish Labour campaign, that attitude has changed after the local elections. Labour lost Glasgow but did not implode. In chunks of their former west of Scotland heartlands there was signs of life.

Mhairi Black’s a media darling, but her reputation as a local MP rather than a local celebrity is not great. Labour would love to unseat her, in what would be a huge upset, or perhaps more realistically go after Gavin Newlands in the neighbouring Paisley seat.

They are also sniffing Glasgow East. With Natalie McGarry’s stint as MP ending in tears – a police investigation, voting in her wedding dress and fainting in the chamber sums up her two years in Westminster – Labour ought to be in with a chance in the deprived neighbourhoods of Glasgow’s east end.

Labour in Scotland doesn’t feel like such a wreck anymore. Alan Roden’s Daily Mail-honed media nous has grabbed attention. Corbyn’s progressive policies have put fuel in the tank.

After polling day, the party will be able to fit all its Scottish MPs comfortably in a small hatchback, compared to the double decker bus necessary just a few years back.

But this general election could give the party the necessary shove to get on to the long road back.

James Millar is a political journalist and founder of the Political Yeti's Politics Podcast. He is co-author of The Gender Agenda, which will be published July 21 by Jessica Kingsley Publishing.

0800 7318496