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22 June 2011

Why Ken Clarke’s Justice Bill is fatally flawed

Yesterday's bill will increase crime, cost taxpayers more and block access to civil justice.

By Linda Lee

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

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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.