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The campaign against proposed legal aid cuts gains public support

first_img ‘Like many others who will reply who regularly deal with vulnerable members of the community, we have real concerns about the increase in litigants in person which will result from these reforms – both in terms of their ability to navigate areas of law on their own, which we believe the Ministry of Justice is over-estimating, and in terms of the impact on the courts and tribunals system.’Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive, LawWorks ‘A father who is denied contact with his children will no longer be eligible for legal aid. I submit that that cannot be right, not only because of the father’s rights to see his children but because of the rights of the children, who have no access to justice.’ Anna Soubry MP (Conservative), House of Commons, 3 February Last week’s adjournment debate on legal aid cuts in the House of Commons marked a change in tone among MPs who, before Christmas, had not made much of the Ministry of Justice’s proposed £350m annual cut to the legal aid budget. What became evident in the debate, secured by Labour MP Yvonne Fovargue, is that MPs are starting to feel the pressure on this issue at a constituency level – from solicitors, citizens advice bureaux, barristers and groups who work with, and represent, vulnerable people. It is striking that even where coalition MPs from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats felt obliged to preface their contributions to the debate with the party line, blaming the last Labour government for the UK’s deficit, they moved quickly on to points criticising the proposals to reduce legal aid – especially civil legal aid, which will bear the brunt of the budget cuts. It seems that what Law Society head of legal aid, Richard Miller, refers to as the ‘solid hostility’ to the cuts he has encountered at the 13 ‘roadshow’ meetings held by the Society since the cuts were announced, has been mobilised. Spend to saveOn Hilsenrath’s last point, supporters of legal aid will be pleased that the money legal aid saves the taxpayer has been referenced in debates. Justice for All insists: ‘The right advice early on can save £10 for every £1 invested and keep families together in their homes, and in work and education.’ It is a point now being made in debates by members of all of the main political parties. Bradshaw said the figure saved for the public purse was £12.20 for every pound of public money it receives. Value for money was also mentioned by Conservative Amber Rudd, who noted in the debate how much free time legal aid practitioners often dedicated to a case. But if that financial issue is more widely understood than previously, it may not necessarily lead to a fundamental change in policy. The problem is that the budget is preset, as agreed in the comprehensive spending review, with only the small print of how the saving should be achieved to be decided. The Law Society expects to see legislation that backs up the legal aid cuts by, or in, May this year for the MoJ to meet the timetable set with the Treasury. Here, challenges in the courts may have a role to play in delaying or frustrating the simple, but arbitrary, changes proposed to legal aid provision. It is early days, but the courts have a chequered history on cases related to the spending review. Last December, the Fawcett Society was unsuccessful in its attempt to bring a judicial review when it argued the government had acted unlawfully in formulating the budget last June ‘without paying due regard to gender equality laws’. The government conceded though that gender impact assessments did apply to the budget and should have been carried out in two key areas – the public sector pay freeze and certain benefit changes. A case against local government body London Councils had more success, perhaps because it was able to link arguments to more specific instances of services provision. Judicial review proceedings were brought by service users of two of the organisations affected by London Councils’ proposed cuts. On 28 January, Mr Justice Calvert-Smith quashed a decision by London Councils to cut £10m from its £26.4m grants scheme to voluntary organisations in the capital. Louise Whitfield, a solicitor at Pierce Glynn who acted for the claimants, explained at the time: ‘This case establishes that even in the current economic climate, it remains of paramount importance that public sector funding cut decisions are properly assessed for their gender, disability and race equality impacts. If they are not, public sector funding cut decisions will be unlawful.’ As well as supporting the campaign against legal aid cuts, human rights group Liberty has suspicions about the legality of proposed cuts. As Liberty notes in its own submission to the legal aid consultation: ‘The provision of legal aid is in some cases demanded by the UK’s obligations to provide a fair trial under the European Convention on Human Rights.’ Liberty’s publicity officer Rachel Robinson says Liberty will examine any legislation closely for its human rights impact: ‘Human rights protections become academic if representation is cut. At a time of collective belt-tightening, access to justice for the vulnerable is more important than ever.’ Supporters of legal aid will feel reassured that some of their key points are being recognised and repeated in parliament, and those organising the campaigns reveal that they are finding support for legal aid on all sides of the House, and not just from the ‘usual suspects’. Before the new year, parliamentarians as a group had made comparatively little fuss about the proposed £350m cut to legal aid. Here a grassroots campaign in MPs’ surgeries, local meetings and correspondence is having an effect, providing granular detail for MPs about the impact of cuts on groups of vulnerable people for whom they do casework. But given the tight timescale, supporters of legal aid still face a huge uphill struggle – they need nothing less than a U-turn. The opposition front bench makes a good point in saying that recommendations from the Carter Review, which would have made savings in the legal aid budget, are not being taken forward. But that still leaves quite a shortfall. Aside from the prospect of harrying ministries and councils in the courts, perhaps the best chance for wringing a change of policy from the MoJ, is to get the case accepted in other government departments that early, free legal advice really does save them money. Making friendsThe recent political visibility of legal aid reflects both the amount of campaigning work concerned groups have done, but also a change in their strategy to broaden the appeal of legal aid. As Jane Backhurst, head of communications, campaigns and policy at the Law Centres Federation, explains: ‘The challenge has been to change the way we campaign, building a broad coalition that goes beyond a core of legal aid providers. We have also been learning to be better at leveraging the incredible contacts that legal aid practitioners have built over time – and making those relationships work for us.’ Points made by MPs in the adjournment debate incorporated recognisable parts of briefings sent out in the preceding week by the Law Society, umbrella campaign group Justice for All, Resolution and others. But MPs seemed persuaded to speak by approaches from members of that ‘broad coalition’ in their constituencies. Lib Dem Stephen Lloyd cited his contact with the Brighton Housing Trust’s Eastbourne advice centre. Fovargue quoted the experience of her local citizens advice bureau. Conservative Anna Soubry also referred to her local CAB, as did Labour MP and former minister Ben Bradshaw. Liberal Democrat Tom Brake has already persuaded justice minister Jonathan Djanogly to meet representatives from his local CAB. Conservative Paul Uppal raised concerns about the impact of withdrawing legal aid from medical negligence cases after listening to cases brought to his constituency surgery; he also questioned the impact on other areas of public spending. Proposed changes to conditional fee agreements, Uppal observed, when combined with the withdrawal of aid, would lead to scenarios where, ‘in essence we will have public money chasing public money, in a circle that will not deliver legal justice on a value-for-money basis’. MPs’ own constituency casework gives many of them a strong empathetic link with the work of law centres and CABs. As Conservative Guto Bebb put it in the adjournment debate: ‘Since I was elected in May, I have been astounded by the amount of quasi-legal casework. I find myself dealing with cases on which I am not qualified to offer advice or guidance.’ Change in the weatherLabour MP Diane Abbott’s speech reminded the House of the way discourse on legal aid had traditionally been handled: ‘Sadly, when governments of all colours consider legal aid, they seem to zero in on the lawyers and the money that they make, rather than the millions of people whom they help.’ This debate did not reflect that usual discourse – even in the response of justice minister Jonathan Djanogly. Twenty MPs had applied to the Speaker to speak in the debate, and most were appalled by the prospect of legal aid cuts as proposed in the consultation paper. What has brought about that change in the tone of the legal aid debate? The CAB provides the central contact point for the Justice for All campaign. The organisation’s Gail Emerson confirms that the aim of the campaign from the start was to bring in support from charities and campaigning groups as well as advice providers. Scope, RNIB, Liberty and the Fawcett Society were among the organisations that added their weight to the efforts of the Law Society, CAB, the Law Centres Federation, and the Criminal bar. This is a campaigning model, Backhurst says, that borrows heavily from the ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign, with which she was also involved. The first, small step was a Christmas e-card sent to all MPs, showing Father Christmas bearing an enormous sack of ‘constituents’ problems’, and the slogan below: ‘Thousands of your constituents came to legal and advice agencies for help this year. Where will you refer them to next year?’ More important, as alliances started to develop and the campaign broadened, was the formal launch and mass lobby in parliament of Justice for All on 12 January. The event put clients helped by free legal advice centre stage in a series of presentations. It was an approach that the Law Society has been urging on solicitors in its own legal aid roadshows, and will build on with the launch of its ‘Sound off for Justice’ campaign – aimed, again, at drawing in wider public support. What has also been better conveyed to political representatives is the degree to which pro bono legal advice is dependent on a functioning legal aid system. LawWorks chief executive Rebecca Hilsenrath is vocal on this issue: ‘From the point of view of a national pro bono brokerage and clearing house, our major concern is around the misunderstanding of the relationship between pro bono and the voluntary sector.’ The legal aid consultation paper, she notes, suggests that pro bono may increase to fill the gaps left by civil legal aid. ‘But,’ she adds, ‘the reality is that pro bono programmes will shrink without the partnership and support of the voluntary sector.’ In addition, Hilsenrath argues that the paper overlooks the benefits and cost effectiveness of early intervention: ‘This is, of course, the great value added of free legal advice clinics, which depend on the advice agencies for infrastructure and support.’ ‘Human rights protection becomes academic if representation is cut. As soon as we see a bill before parliament, we will be examining it closely for its human rights impact.’ Rachel Robinson, publicity officer, Libertycenter_img ‘Nobody who has seen people queuing outside their law centre for help could support any action by any government with undermined that movement… the legal aid reforms will also undermine the practice of many high-street solicitors, who are often close to and help their community.’Diane Abbott MP (Labour), House of Commons, 3 February ‘The Society is concerned that the civil legal aid scope cuts in social welfare law such as debt, welfare benefits, housing and education together with clinical negligence, immigration, employment and family law appear to be targeted against areas of law which are most relevant to the poorest and most vulnerable members of society including people with disabilities, ethnic minorities and women.’ Parliamentary brief, The Law Society What they said ‘The narrow definition of domestic violence cases will leave women and children vulnerable and less able to seek help; the failure to address the very high-cost criminal cases is a mistake and a missed opportunity.’Andy Slaughter MP (Labour), House of Commons, 3 February ‘The challenge has been to change the way we campaign, building a broad coalition that goes beyond a core of legal aid providers. We have also been learning to be better at leveraging the incredible contacts that legal aid practitioners have built over time – and making those relationships work for us.’Jane Backhurst, head of communications, campaigns and policy at the Law Centres Federationlast_img

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