Denying justice to least powerful

By Savi Hensman
October 21, 2011

The UK government is making it harder to challenge state decisions, the chair of the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council has warned.

Richard Thomas gave the examples of the introduction of employment tribunal fees, forcing tenants to seek help from local councillors before going to the housing ombudsman, and delays in hearing appeals over social security decisions. The average wait is 29 weeks, and "If you are dependent on benefits to keep your household afloat then this is not a happy story." A family of four going to an immigration tribunal must pay £560.

There is also a trend for non-accountability in education: "The increasing number of schools that will be outside local authority control (including academies and free schools), and which will, therefore, act as their own admission authorities, is especially troubling."

Yet the authorities often get things wrong: half of all immigration appeals are successful, as are a third of cases to overturn school admission decisions.

“UK citizens must be confident that they can challenge government decisions – which have a huge effect on them and their families – quickly, easily and proportionately. At a time of increasing economic and social fragility, it is especially important to have meaningful arrangements for the resolution of genuine grievances against the might of government,” he urged.

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill 2010-11, is making its way through Parliament, It is expected to reach the report stage in the House of Commons in late October. It seeks drastic restrictions on legal aid in England and Wales, and will “have a disproportionate effect upon the poorest and most vulnerable in society," according to senior judge Baroness Hale of Richmond.

Its effects include blocking many “no win no fees” cases. This prompted the family of dead schoolgirl Milly Dowler – who took action against media corporation News International on this basis – to write to David Cameron, urging him, “We are sure that you do not want to go down in history as the Prime Minister who took rights away from ordinary people so that large companies could print whatever they like and break the law without being able to challenge them”. Victims of medical negligence will also be hit. Yet despite the many voices of protest, the government seems intent on pressing ahead.

A Welfare Reform Bill that has been widely criticised for its damaging impact on tenants on housing benefit and disabled people is at the committee stage in the House of Lords. The government is determined to get tough on people who lose their jobs in the current economic crisis – which many believe has been made worse be state policies – and those of working age suffering from conditions such as mental illness, multiple sclerosis or cancer.

Ordinarily, such important – and controversial – legislation would be referred to a committee of the whole House, where it could be studied line by line, and if necessary amended. Instead, this Bill is being heard in grand committee, where fewer people can take part and there is no voting on amendments: the committee must agree unanimously. So just one peer intent on pushing the reforms through in their current form can block changes to the Bill’s wording.

At the same time, the NHS is imposing increasing restrictions on treatment so that, for instance, a manual worker who needs a knee replacement may face a long wait or be denied treatment altogether. If he then experiences constant pain, is unable to walk properly and loses his job, he may be treated as a ‘scrounger’ who should be able to work if he were not lazy.

Hedge funds, financiers and private equity firms contributed more than a quarter of all donations to the Conservative party (the dominant partner in the ruling Coalition) in the past year, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed at the end of September 2011. Several major energy, transport, leisure and retail companies also gave generously. The opposition, too, has close links with big business. Meanwhile the rights of ordinary people at risk of unjust treatment by the state or huge corporations are being cut back.

As Hebrew prophets such as Jeremiah warned thousands of years ago, societies built on injustice are not stable, and face disaster.


© Savi Hensman is a Christian commentator and Ekklesia associate. She works professionally in the care and equalities sector.

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