The government’s plan to slash £220m from the UK’s legal aid budget has rightly been condemned for its sweeping scale but, in this series of interviews I’ve done for the Guardian, the very human impact – the effect on the individual – is laid bare.
Under the proposals, victims of miscarriages of justice like Gerry Conlon, one of the Guilford Four, or Mark Neary, who fought his local council’s decision to send his son into care 300 miles away from home, would never have brought their cases before the courts.
Legal aid has helped to right countless wrongs since its inception as part of the post-war welfare state but the plans for change render it unrecognisable and inaccessible.
Legal aid, and the individual’s right to challenge authority and unfair decisions is a bedrock of the British legal system, often described as “the envy of the world“. Dismantle that foundation, and, as the people and families I spoke to for today’s piece make clear, you increase the likelihood of wrongful convictions and greater unrest among the prison population, and you give the authorities carte blanche to bring in sweeping changes (to welfare, for example) with impunity.
The government’s Transforming Legal Aid proposals include new competitive tendering of solicitors’ contracts and a fixed fee system which, say lawyers, will preclude many from bidding for work and force them out of the market. The government will also prevent prisoners from using legal aid to challenge their treatment inside (see the words of ex-offender Leroy Skeete in the Guardian piece to see what effect this could have) and a new residency test will withhold legal aid from trafficking victims or those recently arrived in the UK who suffer domestic abuse.
Justice secretary Chris Grayling is due to give evidence this morning to the justice select committee regarding the price competitive tendering proposals in his Transforming Legal Aid consultation.
As reported, Grayling has said in a statement: “I have always been clear this is a genuine consultation and I will continue to listen to views.” (He may listen – but will he act on what he hears?) He may be dropping his plans to remove defendants’ rights to choose their own solicitor but, while the safeguarding of choice is welcome, that choice is useless if the pool from which to chose dries up. In addition, if the system is so restricted under the changes that would-be claimants don’t get permission to launch appeal cases anyway, they won’t even get as far as having to make a choice.
Below are two more testimonies which explain just what a difference legal aid makes – and what would happen if the changes go through:
Blessing (not her real name), 36, a domestic worker from Nigeria:
“My employers hadn’t paid me properly, or paid any tax, for the nine months I worked for them. I was paid £250 a month and worked seven days a week. I never had rest days or fixed hours. They called me to work at any time. I normally started working at 7am and would work until after 11pm as my employers would return home late and expect me to cook for them.
During the day I looked after their children and cooked and cleaned. At the weekends I also had to clean my employers’ business. It was hard work and I had no life of my own.
Legal aid helped me to go to court for an employment tribunal and win. I won my claim to be paid the national minimum wage for my work.
Without legal aid I wouldn’t have got anything. I didn’t know how to help myself. I didn’t know about my rights in the UK until I went to Kalayaan, which advises migrant domestic workers. They explained my rights to me and were able to find me a lawyer to take my case.
My case shows that domestic work is real work and that work in a private household should have proper hours and be fairly paid – like any work.
The proposed residency test under the legal aid changes will stop people like me from getting help [the proposals mean applicants need to be lawfully resident in the UK and to have lived here continuously for at least a year at some stage]. This is on top of new immigration rules that mean domestic workers are given a tied migrant domestic worker visa, the rules of which also makes getting help impossible [the visa means migrant domestic staff in private households cannot change employer or stay longer than six months].
Employers will be able to treat these workers however they like as they will know that they won’t be able to challenge any mistreatment. Many are not paid at all for many months work in the UK. With no legal aid they won’t be able to do anything about this.”
Tracey Lazard, chief executive Inclusion London, a pan-London Deaf and disabled peoples organisation:
“Disabled people need access to justice now more than ever.
Entitlements to independent living and social care are being dismantled and reduced and the right to challenge is through judicial review – and that, to all intents and purposes, is going to be removed [the reforms make it harder to bring a judicial review].
Increasingly, local authorities are – in order to make budgets work – squeezing individual care packages…it’s only when a disabled person’s legal aid lawyer threatens the local authority with action, do we see them carrying out statutory duties.
It’s less likely that public bodies will be held to account [under the reforms] and in this climate of frenzied cuts, that’s more important than ever. Judicial review is a key challenge to ensure that public bodies meet their duties under the Equalities Act and due regard is paid to vulnerable groups.
Without legal aid funded judicial reviews, the recent work capability assessment and bedroom tax policies wouldn’t have been challenged.
We’ll have a huge percentage of the population without redress, and that is a dangerous system to be in.”