In the future our police, lawyers and jails will be run by G4S

Barrister Russell Fraser explains the reality of cuts to legal aid.

"The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by the way it treats its prisoners” is a quote for which history claims many authors. Dostoyevsky, Churchill and Pope John Paul II have each been paired with it perhaps saying something of the power contained in the idea. Regardless, it is not a sentiment shared by our current Lord Chancellor – the first non-lawyer in the post since 1672 – Chris Grayling, who on 8 April announced a new package of cuts to legal aid.

Grayling does not believe prisoners should have access to free legal advice concerning matters such as treatment, sentencing, disciplinary action and parole board reviews. Instead, he tells us, the prisoner can raise a complaint through an internal procedure. Never mind that many prisoners will be burdened with much of the health, educational and social problems associated with criminality which will make it quite impossible for them to put their own case effectively. How prisoners are treated is fundamental to their prison existence and to restrict their ability to ensure that treatment is lawful begins to look like a form of punishment in itself.

In criminal legal aid, the consultation forwards plans for a model of price competitive tendering. Bids will be invited below a fixed ceiling for batches of work around the country. It is a system in which only warehouse law firms will exist and high street firms will either die or be absorbed by large corporations intent on delivering legal services cheaply for maximum profit. The future will be one in which suspects are apprehended by G4S investigators, transported by G4S security, detained by G4S officers and imprisoned in G4S jails – at each stage represented by G4S lawyers.

With price competition will come the removal of the right to the solicitor of your choice. Representation will be allocated by rota and it will be made difficult to change solicitor should you wish to for any reason. The idea that quality can survive the casual vandalism of these proposals is absurd. The model of turbo price competition used in some US states tells us that.

Fees in criminal legal aid is a favourite target of justice secretaries and Grayling is no exception. Yet, there has been no increase in barristers’ fees since the 1990s. While a handful of criminal QCs do earn significant sums the rest of us do not. It may be that such fees should be discussed but not, as the justice secretary does, in a bid to undermine the entire system. As a trainee barrister I have a guaranteed income of £12,000 during my first year. We do not ask for sympathy, merely accuracy.

On the civil side the planned fee reductions mean many lawyers’ practices will simply no longer be viable. So those who specialise in housing, homelessness, actions against the police and judicial review – all crucial mechanisms for ensuring state accountability – will disappear. Their successors will be the warehouse G4S model or non-specialist charitable organisations staffed by well-intentioned but resource-poor lawyers. There will be no equality of arms in the courtroom.

As a result of previous reforms, from 1 April this year a raft of areas no longer attract free legal advice. Employment cases, non-asylum immigration cases, consumer rights and welfare benefits were all removed from scope. In the case of the latter it is estimated that 40% of challenges before the benefits tribunal succeed. Money would be saved by the Department of Work and Pensions making the correct decisions in the first place. There has been no opportunity to yet assess the impact of these changes but that has not deterred Grayling from unleashing a new round of cuts.

There is to be a residency test for those claiming civil legal aid. Applicants must be in the country lawfully to be able to apply and for those who are, an additional requirement of 12 months’ residence is imposed. This is the sort of divisive approach to immigration we have come to expect from the Conservative side of the coalition. Children of people here unlawfully will be left without the protection that would otherwise see them housed and looked after. Foreign students and people here on a temporary visas will be unable to challenge state wrongdoing.

If money is all that Chris Grayling understands then he should understand this: these proposals will cost more in terms of the miscarriages of justice, social harm, and disruption to the court service which will result, than the £200 million he seeks to save.

 

Russell Fraser is a pupil barrister and joint secretary of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. He has written this in a personal capacity.

Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling at the London Guildhall last year. Photo: Getty.
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Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s echoes of New Labour

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through bold policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s strategy was so successful that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness.

But, as some say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh; when you make, as you will, bad decisions; when the list of enemies grows long; when you’ve simply had your time; you’ll fall like all the rest. Only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. The debate on 21 May between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of a sure outcome – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. That is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’être is independence; everything else is just another brick to build the path. And so its education reform cannot be either brave or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions, or parents.

The same goes for the NHS, and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature – is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: “It’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs.”

Yet the voters show signs of wearying. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren.

So, during the debate, it was Nicola Sturgeon, not the Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, or Labour’s Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs.

There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use food banks (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster). “I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish government],” Claire Austin told the panel. “You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS.” She delivered the killer line of the evening: “Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you . . . in this election?”

The list of reasonable criticisms of the SNP’s governance is growing. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off. Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried Middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nationalists’ constitution explicitly prohibits SNP elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. Although total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing.

The word “cult” has long dogged the SNP. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning, but this has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage door at times). After the debate, Claire Austin found herself at its mercy as the Nats briefed – wrongly – that she was the wife of a Tory councillor. The SNP branch in Stirling said, Tebbitishly, that if she was having to use food banks, “Maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?”

Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s home affairs spokesperson, was forced to apologise for spreading “Twitter rumours” about Austin. The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but it hasn’t gone away – it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated: they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party.

I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall, it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, and its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly exasperate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and many signs that things will get worse.

How then do you arrest your fall? The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed it. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed. 

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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

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