The Lords must intervene on legal aid cuts

Access to legal advice is a vital part of the welfare safety net that could disappear if government

The government is pressing ahead with plans to cut legal aid that will result in the closure of law centres across the UK. With unemployment, debt and radical changes to the benefits system souring the public mood, increasing numbers of people are finding themselves in situations where they need legal advice, and need it for free.

Having inflicted defeats on the government over welfare reform, the Lords look up for a fight over this issue. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill recently passed through the committee stage in the Lords where it was met with hostility on both sides. The bill now faces the report stage for further line-by-line scrutiny and detailed consideration of the proposed changes. Peers have warned that if the planned £350 million cuts are implemented law centres will close, leaving many thousands of the poor and vulnerable marginalised and without access to legal help. The Shadow Justice minister Lord Bach believes that over half of all Citizens Advice Bureaus would be forced to shut permanently, whilst the Law Centre Federation is bracing itself for the loss of around 18 of their 56 centres.

For those centres that do survive, these cuts, combined with the recent decimation of local authority funding, will remove legal aid for medical negligence, divorce, employment and welfare cases, whilst also hitting areas such as debt and housing hard. The Lords are battling to include an amendment to keep legal aid for welfare cases. There is real strength of feeling on this subject. And here's why:

Legal Aid has been under great strain, it won't be able to withstand the purse strings being drawn even more tightly. As it is, law centres operate on an incredibly tight budget. A fixed fee of £150 is charged for meritorious cases, that is, those cases that hinge on complex legal issues, and in which an advisor must do far more than simple form filling. Appointments must be booked, and slots are limited. Progress can be slow - requiring a frustrating number of phone calls (the CAB national helpline charges 44 pence per minute from a mobile - an especially unwelcome addition for those with debt problems).

Under the proposed changes, the government expects more people to deal with problems themselves, via a centralised telephone line or the Internet. Just imagine how difficult this might be for someone with learning disabilities, who really needs to deal with someone face-to-face from the start. Or someone who cannot afford a telephone or the Internet, and therefore would previously have relied on walking to their local law centre. These people will still exist, but will have nowhere to turn.

Without proper access to legal aid, many people, discouraged and afraid - for the system is difficult and daunting even to those with advice and representations - may choose to allow actionable claims to go unheard and fundamental rights to go without enforcement. Disabled people will not get the support they need - at great cost to them and to friends, family, carers, communities and the taxpayer further down the line. In any event, vulnerable people are not wildly rushing to court to litigate. In fact they are slow to do so and it is often the last thing they want to do. And what's more, this situation is only made worse by a lack of awareness: too many people do not understand that the legal profession exists, in all its bewigged pomp and ceremony, to protect fairness for everyone.

Law centres have been prominent in the UK for over 40 years, and previous governments have understood and accepted the cost of publicly funded legal services if principles of fairness and access to justice are to be adhered to at all levels of society. These governments recognised that vulnerable people need accessible, early and high-quality advice to prevent their problems spiralling out of control. Without the help they need, these people will, at best, muddle through issues themselves; at worst, they will sit on problems, as their lives descend into chaos.

This isn't a risk worth taking, especially as legal aid constitutes just 0.04% of the budget, which is the cost of running the NHS for just two weeks. According to a recent King's College London report, these cuts will simply shift the burden onto other parts of the public purse - wiping out almost 60% of the claimed savings. Scrapping legal aid for social welfare law would bring an extra cost of £35.2 million against savings of £58 million. Essentially this means that people with troubled lives will be taking the hit for a fairly insignificant saving for the rest of us.

So without a convincing economic rationale, what is the real reason for change? Perhaps it's because the legal profession is, of course, an easy money-saving target, given the common misconception that they are all 'fat cats', purring atop mountainous fees. Well, hardly. Law centres are run by trained advisors, qualified lawyers and volunteers offering their time and services for modest or no recompense.

Perhaps it's about fairness? Yes, the system needs to be fair. And that means fairness for everyone. Fair to the vulnerable, fair to defendants, fair to practitioners, and fair to the taxpayer too. But this isn't a money-saving exercise. This is an attack on the welfare state.

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Leader: Mourning in Manchester

Yet another attack shows we are going to have to get to used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state.

Children are murdered and maimed by a suicide bomber as they are leaving a pop concert in Manchester. As a consequence, the government raises the terror threat to “critical”, which implies that another attack is imminent, and the army is sent out on to the streets of our cities in an attempt to reassure and encourage all good citizens to carry on as normal. The general election campaign is suspended. Islamic State gleefully denounces the murdered and wounded as “crusaders” and “polytheists”.

Meanwhile, the usual questions are asked, as they are after each new Islamist terrorist atrocity. Why do they hate us so much? Have they no conscience or pity or sense of fellow feeling? We hear, too, the same platitudes: there is more that unites us than divides us, and so on. And so we wait for the next attack on innocent civilians, the next assault on the free and open society, the next demonstration that Islamism is the world’s most malignant and dangerous ideology.

The truth of the matter is that the Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was born and educated in Britain. He was 22 when he chose to end his own life. He had grown up among us: indeed, like the London bombers of 7 July 2005, you could call him, however reluctantly, one of us. The son of Libyan refugees, he supported Manchester United, studied business management at Salford University and worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. Yet he hated this country and its people so viscerally that he was prepared to blow himself up in an attempt to murder and wound as many of his fellow citizens as possible.

The Manchester massacre was an act of nihilism by a wicked man. It was also sadly inevitable. “The bomb was,” writes the Mancunian cultural commentator Stuart Maconie on page 26, “as far as we can guess, an attack on the fans of a young American woman and entertainer, on the frivolousness and foolishness and fun of young girlhood, on lipstick and dressing up and dancing, on ‘boyfs’ and ‘bezzies’ and all the other freedoms that so enrage the fanatics and contradict their idiot dogmas. Hatred of women is a smouldering core of their wider, deeper loathing for us. But to single out children feels like a new low of wickedness.”

We understand the geopolitical context for the atrocity. IS is under assault and in retreat in its former strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa. Instead of urging recruits to migrate to the “caliphate”, IS has been urging its sympathisers and operatives in Europe to carry out attacks in their countries of residence. As our contributing writer and terrorism expert, Shiraz Maher, explains on page 22, these attacks are considered to be acts of revenge by the foot soldiers and fellow-travellers of the caliphate. There have been Western interventions in Muslim lands and so, in their view, all civilians in Western countries are legitimate targets for retaliatory violence.

An ever-present threat of terrorism is the new reality of our lives in Europe. If these zealots can murder children at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, there is no action that they would not consider unconscionable. And in this country there are many thousands – perhaps even tens of thousands – who are in thrall to Islamist ideology. “Terror makes the new future possible,” the American Don DeLillo wrote in his novel Mao II, long before the al-Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001. The main work of terrorists “involves mid-air explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.”

Immediately after the Paris attacks in November 2015, John Gray reminded us in these pages of how “peaceful coexistence is not the default condition of modern humankind”. We are going to have to get used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state. “The progressive narrative in which freedom is advancing throughout the world has left liberal societies unaware of their fragility,” John Gray wrote. Liberals may not like it, but a strong state is the precondition of any civilised social order. Certain cherished freedoms may have to be compromised. This is the new tragic narrative.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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