Despite recent plans to halt legal aid cuts, Ridwan Uddin argues that proposed reforms still go too far and undermine the justice system.
“Michael Gove: Our Saviour!” Not really the cry you would expect to hear following the MP’s rather unpopular stint as Secretary of State for Education. But the one time Chief Whip, now Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice was responsible for halting major reforms of the legal aid system to the delight of lawyer groups last month.
The reforms would have seen the number of solicitor’s firms awarded “duty contracts”, which finance the provision of 24-hour legal assistance at police stations in local communities, reduced by about two-thirds from 1,600 to 527. Firms awarded the contract are present in police stations and magistrates courts when called on to represent those qualifying for legal aid. The coveted “duty” work is widely perceived to be a crucial component of the solicitor profession as it provides a steady stream of clients.
So Michael Gove has become the darling of the “duty” solicitors at least for the time being. Despite this, there are still several severe problems with the legal aid sector which will not be fixed by simply scrapping the deep cuts initially proposed by Gove’s predecessor Chris Grayling.
The reality of life as a legal aid lawyer is in stark contrast to the so-called “fat cat” barristers. There are no six-figure salaries. In fact, the average salary in the sector is just £25,000 with some junior barristers facing the prospect of being paid less than the minimum wage following the proposed cuts. This is especially pressing given that Gove did not announce that all cuts were to be abandoned, merely that an 8.75 per cent cut to legal aid fees has simply been suspended for a year. The £14 a day barrister could therefore become a reality fairly soon with terrible implications for our justice system.
Despite this, the plight of lawyers has not received anywhere near the levels of public support offered to junior doctors during the strike earlier this month. There must be a change in attitudes towards lawyers on the government payroll. After all, it is only the poorest that are most at risk as a result of cuts; Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd offered a damning assessment of the justice system: “Our system of justice has become unaffordable to most”. The Lord Chief Justice’s words simply add to a growing unease among senior members of the judiciary that the proposed cuts to legal aid are putting people at risk of being unable to afford justice.
This has been reflected by shocking figures indicating a sharp decline of 90 per cent of people receiving advice and assistance for social welfare issues in 2013-14, the year following the introduction of government reforms to legal aid.
This goes entirely against what our legal system is supposed to stand for. What we are witnessing is a regression of justice in England and Wales to the extent that the words of 19th century Irish judge Sir James Mathew “in England, justice is open to all – like the Ritz hotel”, ring true to this day.
If justice itself is unavailable to those who are unable to afford it then our system is quite simply failing those that are most in need of its protection.
Defenders of cuts routinely point towards the fact that Britain has the largest legal aid budget in Europe by a long measure: £2 billion against a European average of just £97 million. But this fails to address the fundamental difference between the continent’s legal system and that of England and Wales; that of European civil law and English common law. The adversarial nature of England and Wales’ justice system is simply more expensive to run than the inquisitorial nature of continental Europe.
The cuts (both in force and proposed) have also given rise to a worrying trend; that of the litigant in person. These are individuals who resort to defending themselves in court without the representation of a solicitor or barrister. They often struggle to make their cases properly and can be confused by legal jargon which consequently puts significant pressure on the courts system. New guidelines for lawyers have had to be drafted up in order to respond to the rise in defendants making their case without the aid of counsel.
This once again boils down to cost and the stranglehold of justice being accepted by a government in pursuit of austerity. Whilst the announcements made by Mr Gove have been encouraging, the reforms have already started to do damage to the fairness of the justice system. The cuts to legal aid are a false economy and they will do irreversible harm to our justice system. And after all, does justice really have a price?