Legal aid bill threatens access to justice

By Savi Hensman
July 4, 2011

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill passing through the UK Parliament has been widely criticised. It aims to cut the cost of legal aid by making it far less widely available. But critics have pointed out that this will result in injustice to all but the rich, and have drastic longer-term costs.

On 29 June, Linda Lee, President of the Law Society, warned:

• Cuts in civil legal will increase criminality and damage social cohesion;
• Cuts in civil legal aid will penalise the victims of crime and not the perpetrators;
• Clause 12 will undermine a cornerstone of our justice system...

The people who will suffer are the weak and the vulnerable. It will be the babies seriously injured in accidents during their birth, for whom there will be no civil legal aid to secure compensation. It will be the woman looking after her disabled mother, who can no longer get advice when her carer's benefit is wrongly stopped.

Clause 12, on ‘Advice and assistance for individuals in custody’, means that in future people who are arrested might not always get the right to free advice from a solicitor. Means-testing might be introduced, resulting in delays and putting off some people from seeking advice.

The Law Society, which is inviting the public to join a ‘Sound off for Justice’ campaign, has made alternative suggestions for saving money. But these have not yet been taken on board.

There has been widespread alarm about the impact of the Bill. In a speech on ‘Equal Access to Justice in the Big Society’, Supreme Court judge Brenda Hale pointed out that “Courts are, and should be, a last resort, but they should be a last resort which is accessible to all, rich and poor alike.”

Indeed, despite government rhetoric about empowering ordinary people, this Bill not only affects access to justice in disputes between citizens but also gives the state greater power. Those harmed by blunders by the government and its agencies will have far less protection if the Bill goes through without major changes.

For many Christians, other people of faith, humanists and all who care about the wellbeing of their neighbours, justice – in the widest sense – is of key importance.

In the Hebrew and Christian tradition, the author of the book of Isaiah has God urging:

seek justice,
correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.

(Isaiah 1.17)

Many will echo that plea in relation to these developments.


(c) Savi Hensman, an Ekklesia associate, works in the care and equalities sector. She is a noted Christian social commentator.

Keywords:legal aid | law | Justice
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