Saturday, 12 February 2011

Legal aid cuts and the Opposition

In an exclusive interview with LAG, Lord Bach, the shadow legal aid minister, discussed Labour’s response to the government’s consultation on the reform of legal aid which ends today (14 February).

Lord Bach, the former legal aid minister, is touchy about criticism that Labour was slow to respond to the government’s proposals. When the consultation on the cuts was announced, Jonathan Freedland, writing in the Guardian, reflected the views of many when he said that Labour should argue that the timing and scale of the cuts are wrong, instead of 'quibbling about the details'. In response to this, Lord Bach says: 'It would have been hypocritical of Labour to say we would not cut anything. If we had we would have been rightly criticised.' He acknowledges that 'Labour got some things wrong in government and we will use our time in opposition to rethink the legal aid system and where it should go'.

Regarding the cuts, Lord Bach believes, rather like Jonathan Freedland, that the coalition government is planning to cut 'too deep and too quickly'. Labour says the government should implement the plans which Lord Bach helped to develop while in government to reduce the number of criminal legal aid firms in the market, increasing the volume of work for those remaining: 'If they did this we believe that £200m could be saved within the spending review period, with no damage done to access to justice. Indeed, we probably would not have waited until 2013 to find these savings.'

Lord Bach is robust in setting out Labour’s position on the areas of civil law known as social welfare law (benefits, debt, housing, employment and education): 'I don’t think ministers get it. They think only in terms of court work and nothing else. It must continually be repeated that if they cut early advice in these areas of law it will be the very vulnerable that will suffer and it will lead to the exact opposite of what they want. More problems will be brought to court.' Labour, he says, is also opposed to the proposed cut of ten per cent in civil fees which will hit 'social welfare lawyers who work for little reward'. He cannot resist making a party political point: 'In opposition, the Liberal Democrats argued for more funding for legal aid and were great supporters of social welfare law and local advice centres. What happened?'

LAG reminded Lord Bach that while in office he often hinted that the Labour government would have to cut back on legal aid for divorce and custody cases. He admits that this was considered: 'I find it difficult to justify legal aid for divorce. Also, privately, family lawyers have told me they do not believe it is the best use of public funds to fight custody battles in court over children.' He says that Labour agrees with the current government that there should be more use of mediation in family cases as this is 'underused in our system'. LAG put it to him that the difficulty of cutting legal aid for family cases is that some women experiencing domestic violence would be denied help in dealing with the financial and other aspects of a relationship break-up. Lord Bach concedes that the government 'will have to look very carefully at the definition of domestic violence. These are incredibly sensitive cases and the definition has to be wider than just physical violence'.

When asked if he believes that the cuts will go through, Lord Bach offers some hope: 'Many backbench MPs are beginning to get it. They know more people will be coming to their constituency surgeries for help and they will have less places to refer them to if advice centres and law firms are forced to close.' He urges people concerned about the proposed cuts to talk to their MPs, particularly Conservative and Liberal Democrat backbenchers. A good piece of advice, LAG would suggest.

It is welcome that the Opposition is now making the right noises about civil legal aid, but it has no power to do anything. We have to concentrate our efforts on those that do, before it is too late.

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