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.
Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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