What price justice?

By Simon Barrow
March 10, 2008

Relatively few people in Britain are aware of the extent to which the government's 'reform' of legal aid is undermining justice for those at the margins of society. It's time that changed.

So I was particularly pleased to see an excellent article in today's Guardian newspaper by Madeleine Bunting (a former religion correspondent there, incidentally). In 'Labour's handling of legal aid makes a mockery of its rhetoric on fairness' she exposes "a scandalous saga of how an ideologically-driven marketisation of a crucial part of the welfare state is going to end up penalising the poorest and most vulnerable members of society."

She adds: "It beggars belief that it is happening under a Labour government - and one stuffed with lawyers who built their own careers on noble principles of how the law must never be a privilege of the rich."

Then: "To make it concrete, [minister responsible for legal aid Lord] Hunt ... needs to order up his ministerial car and take a trip to Tooting, south London. There, the biggest law centre in the country, handling 26,000 cases and surviving every cut thrown at it in the last 30 years, is reeling from the impact of legal aid 'reforms' that have slashed its income by 30%, and is desperately scrabbling together a survival plan."

I know of other law centres that are also existing hand-to-mouth. But the government's Legal Services Commission is very sensitive to criticism of this kind, and it has been telling those contracting for legal aid work that it is "unhelpful" to go to the media. This in spite of availing itself lavishly of propaganda opportunities, even though it has solidly lost its recent argument about 'unitary contracts' in the Court of Appeal, has dismissed a mountain of evidence, and has very few supporters among those who have to deal with the harsh realities its procedures are now making worse, say critics.

Bunting again: "At a gathering with City lawyers last week, Straw was peppered with questions on the issue. Consciences are troubled: British legal services are booming, generating up to 2% of output, and making Britain 'a jurisdiction of choice for multinationals because of its lack of corruption. But for the most deprived of its own citizens, access to the law is becoming even more attenuated. The glitz of the legal system for the rich and powerful masks that for the poor in this two-tier Britain. One is sharp brains, gleaming glass and steel skyscrapers, the other is paralegals in shabby offices with outdated computers."

There will be more on the legal aid issue and the plight of law centres in the Guardian Society section on Wednesday 12 March, I gather.

See also: One Law for the Rich.

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