Former Justice Secretary Kenneth Clark announced last year that, to keep the Ministry of Justice in line with cuts and austerity measures imposed by the Chancellor, that the legal aid budget of £2bn would be cut by £350m, coming into effect this April.
This was to great opposition and protest throughout the legal sector. Many legal practitioners and bodies stated that the effect of such cuts would be to deny people justice, as people would not be able to afford representation in court. A basic democratic right would be infringed if the legal aid bill was cut, critics warned.
The proposals outlined cuts to mainly civil law areas, including family, personal injury, criminal negligence, immigration and similar. Such areas have a day to day impact on people’s lives, and as such the opportunity to get legal aid for those areas is vital to allow the average citizen the opportunity to get justice, the legal sector argued.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) stated that such cuts would make more people turn to arbitration or alternative dispute resolution (ADR). Critics, whilst approving of the idea to encourage ADR, said it was morally wrong that citizens should be effectively be denied the choice of whether to obtain justice by the courts or by ADR, and be forced by lack of money or representation to go down the ADR route- which might not be appropriate for all claims.
In an interview earlier this month, Lord Neuberger, the President of the Supreme Court, gave his own criticism of the cuts. With the absence of legal aid and the ability to get legal representation, Lord Neuberger stated that the amount of litigants in person (LIP’s: claimants who represent themselves in court without a lawyer) would probably rise. He commented that “this will mean that court hearings will last longer, the burden on court staff and judges will increase… and you may find the savings the government thinks it’s making in legal aid will be offset in other costs of courts and judges and court staff in supporting litigants in person.”
The Act of Parliament concerning the proposed cuts went before the House of Lords last week.
In a rare show of crossbench solidarity, the Lords condemned the Bill, with former Labour justice minister Lord Bach calling the government a “playground bully”. The Bill before the Lords contained none of the exemptions initially promised, amongst other failings and criticisms.
Three motions regretting the government’s actions over the broken promises in this legislation were debated in the House- and resulted in a defeat for the government.
Lord Bach’s regret motion was passed by 166 votes to 161- a narrow majority, but a government defeat nonetheless. Baroness Grey Thompson’s (crossbencher) regret motion (concerning legal aid and the disabled) resulted in another defeat; 163 votes to 148. Baroness Scotland (formerly Gordon Brown’s Attorney General- and the first woman to hold the role) spoke out concerning legal aid for victims of domestic violence; her motion was also passed, by 156 votes to 140.
The Bill was eventually passed- but surprising crossbench solidarity and fierce opposition to the Bill was a great political and moral defeat for the government. The stormy passage through the House of Lords and stinging criticism from throughout the legal sector and civil rights advocates shows just how unpopular Mr. Clarke’s legal aid cuts are. The cuts will take effect later this year; but at great political and moral cost the government.
In his interview, Lord Neuberger said that his “worry is the removal of legal aid for people to get advice about law and get representation in court will start to undermine the rule of law because people will feel like the government isn’t giving them access to justice in all sorts of cases… And that will either lead to frustration and lack of confidence in the system, or it will lead to people taking the law into their own hands.”
Even though the Law Lords no longer sit in the House of Lords, on some matters it is if the Law Lords never left the red benches.