Magna Carta and justice denied

By Bernadette Meaden
March 31, 2015

On Panorama recently, senior judges warned that cuts to legal aid have undermined the principle of equal access to the law.

There are other worrying signs that cuts, increased fees and outsourcing are undermining the values essential to any decent system of justice. As we approach the anniversary of Magna Carta, are the principles it represents being abandoned?

On March 27th the Habeus Corpus Project (HCP) reported that access to their website had been blocked to detainees in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Centre. The centre, run by Serco, houses women ‘awaiting immigration clearance’. The women have not been convicted of any crime, and the Centre is officially not a prison.

However, Channel Four recently aired some undercover footage from a whistleblower in Yarl’s Wood, which showed guards referring to the detainees as "caged animals" and encouraging each other to "hit her with a stick". It was since this footage had been broadcast that access to HCP’s website was blocked.

HCP explains: "Cuts to legal aid, coupled with mounting pressure on the Home Office to deal with a backlog of cases, means that many detainees are detained unlawfully and have limited access to justice. We are one of a number of organisations that provide essential assistance to people held in immigration detention centres – making them aware of their rights; providing emotional as well as legal support; ensuring that they have legal representation or, when this is not an option, providing some guidance through the impenetrable maze of immigration laws and procedures."

Disturbingly, HCP reports that detainees have been prevented from accessing numerous other legal websites, and, "are prevented from filling out online forms on the website for Medical Justice, which is the only UK organisation that arranges for independent volunteer doctors to visit men, women and children in immigration detention to assess and document scars of torture."

Even if the women at Yarls’ Wood go to court, they could find that another outsourced service will let them down. There are now frequent reports of cases being delayed or trials collapsing, due to the failure of Capita to provide suitable interpreters. This leads to people being held in custody longer than necessary, with as yet unquantified human and financial costs.

The privatisation of the court interpreter service was described as, "shambolic", with the contract first being awarded to a company called ALS. ALS’s founder Gavin Wheeldon was on Dragon’s Den only four years prior to being awarded the contract to deliver this vital public service. None of the dragons would invest in him, but he must have impressed the Coalition government. His own mother said, "My nickname for Gavin was our little Arthur Daley, my dad always said if he didn't end up behind bars he'd end up making a fortune!"

Now we learn that Sodexo, which runs parts of the newly-privatised probation service, plans to make hundreds of probation officers redundant and replace them with machines to cut costs.

Ian Lawrence, the General Secretary of the Napo probation union, said: “Probation staff have been through hell over the past 18 months dealing with Grayling’s so-called reforms, and now many face redundancy and job insecurity. The use of call centres and machines instead of highly skilled staff is downright dangerous.”

The government has also increased the fees for employment tribunals, causing a huge drop in the number of claims being pursued. The total number has fallen by 79 per cent, with an 80 per cent cut in sex discrimination claims, and cases relating to unpaid wages and holiday pay down by 85 per cent. Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) says that seven out of ten potentially successful cases are now dropped because of the cost.

This leaves low paid workers at the mercy of unscrupulous employers, who now know they can treat their employees badly and they have little alternative but to accept it. CAB give the example of "a man who worked 40 hours a week for more than two months as a kitchen porter and was entitled to holiday pay of just under £300. On learning that the fees to access the tribunal would be £390, he abandoned the claim."

These and other examples show that right across our system of justice, an approach has been taken which seems to know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. In an attempt to put a price on justice, the government has denied it to many. Magna Carta is revered around the world as a symbol of an individual’s right to liberty and justice, but we are seeing the principles it represents abandoned. It is a sad and shabby record for any government.

* You can read the full Habeus Corpus Project statement here.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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