Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Unlikely bedfellows

At an event held at the House of Lords yesterday (14 June) the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and the Young Legal Aid Lawyers revealed the findings of their commission of inquiry into legal aid.

The commission comprised the former Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris, Diana Holland, the assistant general secretary of the trade union Unite and the Reverend Professor Nicholas Sagovsky, a former sub-dean at Westminster Abbey. This independent panel gathered evidence on both sides of the argument about the future of legal aid and heard testimony from former legal aid clients. These included Mrs Whitehouse who had been threatened with eviction by her landlord after being a tenant in her flat for nearly 50 years.

'What happened to my husband and I could happen to anyone. You can lose your home especially if you are renting, but also if you are buying.' She lost her case at the first court hearing and was concerned about the amount of public money her case was costing in legal aid, but was successful in the Court of Appeal. 'What was most important to me was that costs were awarded against the landlord which meant all the public money was paid back.'

An unlikely attendee at the event, which was graced by a good few left-leaning lawyers and was hosted by the shadow legal aid minister, Lord Bach, was the former Conservative Secretary of State for Social Security, Lord Newton. He made the point that three sets of interconnected proposals, the Welfare Reform Bill, the Localism Bill (especially with regard to its provisions on tenure) and the legal aid reforms, will have a major impact on advice providers and the people they serve. He said: 'I am not satisfied that what is proposed is protecting vulnerable people' and, as the former chairman of the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council , he was concerned about 'the costs of some processes if people do not have help and advice. Some people going to tribunals need to know what points to argue'.

The findings of the commission included:

'Legal aid is vital in protecting the righs of vulnerable people ... many of those who receive legal aid are among the most vulnerable in society. They include the elderly, the disabled, the abused, children and the mentally ill. They each have legal rights which they would not have been able to enforce without legal aid.'

'Legal aid is vital in upholding the rule of law ... There can be no semblance of equality before the law when those who cannot afford to pay a lawyer privately go unrepresented or receive a worse kind of representation that those who can.'

'Legal aid is essential to holding the state to account ... It would be wrong in principle for the state to tolerate bad decision-making while at the same time removing the ability of ordinary people to hold those bodies to account for their mistakes by reducing legal aid.'

'Cutting legal aid is a false economy ... When coupled with the human cost to the vulnerable and socially excluded of reducing legal aid, the panel finds these increased economic costs are unacceptable.'

In closing the launch event, Lord Bach said that he understood the government's response to the consultation on the legal aid changes would be published within the week and 'despite over 90 per cent of those who responded to the consultation disagreeing with the government’s plans, in general it will go ahead with the scope cuts. This should not be seen as just a legal problem for lawyers. Legal aid cuts are an issue for everyone as it is about fairness and morality'.

View pictures from the event by Ripon Ray:

Image: LAG

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