The ‘Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill’ currently in the committee stage in the House of Lords contains plans to cut legal aid to the most vulnerable and put the basic right to legal representation out of their reach.
Having thought there could be never be a day when I and Norman Tebbit (the arch Thatcherite former MP for Chingford) could have a common cause, it came as a quite a shock to find out he is tabling an amendment to the bill which proposes cuts to legal aid. Tebbit is concerned because legal aid would no longer be available to children involved in medical negligence cases. His concern over the bill should serve to show us all just how far reaching its effects would be in curtailing the right to legal representation to the most vulnerable in our society.
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill is currently before the House of Lords. It would remove whole areas of civil law, such as employment, immigration and welfare benefits from access to legal aid.
Funding for divorces will be removed unless there is domestic violence. The definition of domestic violence is not the same as that used in other parts of the criminal justice system. Under the proposals only women who ‘can prove a high risk of violence’, such as having secured a conviction or being referred for a risk assessment, will be eligible for legal aid. This leaves women who are too scared to go to the police or attend court to secure a conviction, or have been subject to psychological and sexual violence (which is difficult to prove), unable to secure legal aid. The most vulnerable women, and their children( who will also be suffering emotional and possibly physical abuse in the home), will be unable to leave because they cannot afford legal advice. They will also be forced into mediation with dangerous perpetrators. Just as disturbing is the fact that alleged domestic violence perpetrators will also lose legal aid, leading to their victims being cross examined by them when they represent themselves in court.
People will no longer have the right to access face to face legal advice at the police station when arrested. More offences will qualify solely for telephone advice on arrest and the phones can be answered by legal advisors rather than solicitors. It should be remembered that the right to see a solicitor at the police station was introduced in 1986, as a response to 1970’s miscarriages of justice, including the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six. Bearing that in mind, the serious consequences of this retrograde step becomes clear. It is also particularly concerning at a time when the Tories continue in their criminalising of protest and the courts hand down politically motivated sentences for those who have taken part in demonstrations.
The Legal Aid and Advice Act came into effect in 1949. In 1979 79% of the population qualified for legal aid. Whilst legal aid has been under attack from both Labour and Tory governments since, the annual legal aid budget actually only amounts to 2 weeks of NHS budget and has not had an inflationary rise for 4 years. The Tories, the police and the judiciary, however, understand the political advantage in minimising access to legal advice for those most likely to oppose the power and advantage held by the ruling class.
The legal aid restrictions would mean that a trafficked child with a faked passport would not receive legal aid to establish a claim to asylum. As the trafficking of children continues to increase into a global scandal, and as the government talks of safeguarding such children, this measure shows the hollowness of their intent.
The campaign group ‘Sound Off for Justice’ estimated that 6,000 under 18 year olds and 69,000 adults aged 18 to 24 will lose access to legal aid. A further 140,000 children will be hit by the withdrawal of legal aid from their parents, including 68,000 young people involved in family breakdown cases. There will be a particular impact on young people who are emotionally vulnerable or have special educational needs as they will be left to negotiate their way around a legal system designed for adults without receiving any professional assistance.
People who lose out on legal advice are supposed to go to law centres and citizen advice centres. The exact services which are being so badly hit by the cuts. The Labour peer Lord Bach quoted at least 8 law centres which were at risk of closure because over 70% of their income comes from legal aid contracts. Lord Bach, accurately, said ‘This cut is a deliberately calculated decision by the government to remove legal aid from those who need it most and make it more difficult, if not impossible, to get access to justice for the poor and disadvantaged.’
The attack on legal aid undermines any opportunity for fair representation for those who are most vulnerable and who, also, are the most likely to find it difficult to find their way through the ‘old boy’ network of the legal system. Just remember the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, the numerous unprosecuted deaths in police custody and on demonstrations, and the extent of tax avoidance and insider dealing. The law is already both made and enacted for those in positions of power, and further weakening the right to legal representation for those most who most need it, is a clear attempt to ensure the most vulnerable are rendered even more powerless.
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