"Legal aid campaigners are to step up the pressure on government by holding marches across the country tomorrow in protest at the legal aid reforms to be outlined in the Justice Bill, expected next week.
The ‘day of action’, organised by Justice for All and supported by the Law Society’s Sound Off for Justice campaign, will see marches in towns and cities across England and Wales, and a rally outside the Supreme Court in London at noon.
Sources indicate that the bill will be published on 8 June.
Gail Emerson, campaigns officer at the Citizens Advice Bureau, said the response to the call for a day of protest had been ‘overwhelming’.
‘People from Hastings to Sheffield will be voicing their deep concerns over the threats to vital local advice services and government proposals, which would decimate civil legal aid in particular,’ she said.
Some 13,246 people have signed the Society’s Sound Off for Justice petition against the cuts, while celebrities including impressionist Alistair McGowan, actress Bianca Jagger and campaigner Jemima Khan have recorded protest messages for justice secretary Kenneth Clarke as part of the campaign.
Concerns over the content of the Justice Bill mounted last week, following a suggestion that the government may be planning even deeper legal aid cuts after Clarke’s politically maladroit remarks about rape sentencing potentially jeopardised its bid to save money by cutting the prison population.
The government had proposed a 50% sentence reduction for defendants who entered a guilty plea at the earliest opportunity.
However, sources told the Gazette that Legal Services Commission chief executive Carolyn Downs had indicated to some firms that, following the furore over Clarke’s remarks last month about rape, the government was reviewing this money-saving policy, and would be looking to make increased savings elsewhere – including from the £2.1bn legal aid budget, which government already wants to cut by £350m a year.
The remarks were alleged to have been made at two controversial meetings held by the LSC with large providers of legal aid services.
However, LSC sources suggested that the potential for Clarke’s gaffe to affect legal aid funding was not something that Downs had told the meetings, but arose from speculation in leading questions put to the LSC chief executive by providers, on which Downs had in fact refused to commit herself.
At the meetings, Downs is also alleged to have said that the government’s plans for the introduction of best value tendering had been delayed.
She is said to have shared information about the LSC’s future approach to family tendering with the firms present.
Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson has written to Clarke seeking assurances over the legal aid budget and expressing concern that the meetings could have given an unfair commercial advantage to the firms present.
An LSC spokesman said: ‘The LSC did not organise the recent meetings of large firms in Sheffield and London, but our chief executive Carolyn Downs was invited to speak at them, as the LSC has done in previous years.
'Carolyn agreed to do so as part of our commitment to dialogue with legal aid providers on operational issues. As Carolyn emphasised at both meetings, decisions on policy are entirely a matter for the Ministry of Justice.’
An MoJ spokesman said its responses to the consultation and its proposals would be published ‘shortly’ and that any assumptions about what they may contain are ‘pure speculation’.
"Profession must fight to the end to block unprecedented and shocking cuts to legal aidThursday 02 June 2011 by Patrick Allen
As we go to press, we await the delayed publication of the government’s plan for legal aid cuts.
The consultation, which closed on 14 February, laid out the government’s clear intentions: save £350 million from the budget by taking whole areas out of scope; cut eligibility; and take 10% off remuneration.
They will remove legal aid from: employment matters, immigration, ancillary relief, housing, and tort and civil disputes including negligence and breach of statutory duty.
The axe is to fall so widely that it is better to assume that legal aid has been scrapped and then look to the few exceptions, such as preserving ancillary relief where domestic violence is alleged (thus leading to many more such allegations).
To justify the removal of legal aid the paper uses the formula ‘importance of issues relatively low’.
The cuts are unprecedented and shocking.
It is outrageous of the government to trivialise the legal problems of people or suggest that somehow litigation is a voluntary pursuit unworthy of state help.
Legal aid is a cornerstone of our post-war constitutional settlement along with the NHS and the provision of universal benefits.
In 1949 with the Legal Aid Act, we recognised the importance of our civil rights and that the fact that those rights could only be protected if people had access to the courts, regardless of means.
For the previous 1,000 years, access to the courts was denied except to the wealthy and to the government.
The need for cuts is controversial.
The government says that we face an unprecedented financial crisis caused by Gordon Brown, which can only be cured by imposing the largest cuts in government spending ever attempted, to be achieved in the lifetime of one parliament.
Nobel-prize winning economists such as Stiglitz say this is economic madness.
We need to adjust our economy following a once in a hundred years banking crisis, affecting many countries.
This led to a 6.2% drop in GNP and emergency borrowing which prevented the total collapse of the economy.
A massive cut in government spending will only make matters worse.
The cure should be a careful expansion in sustainable jobs (funded for example by a tax on banking transactions and land) and curbs on the bankers.
Instead, we have a government which appears to be using the situation as cover for what it always wanted to do - savagely cut back the state.
The result for legal aid is that fundamental constitutional rights are being removed while the bankers responsible for the crisis carry on much as before.
Most litigants with legal problems outside the criminal law will have nowhere to turn for help.
It is clear from studies and blindingly obvious that litigants are less likely to succeed without legal representation.
They fail to identify the law and procedure needed to progress their case and to gather the evidence essential to win it.
Pro-active judges cannot cure these defects.
Presenting a case in court is daunting for most litigants as they are emotionally involved in the issues and generally lack the advocacy or literacy skills required.
They cannot overcome the disadvantage of being up against well-resourced and legally represented opponents.
Faced with these difficulties, most litigants will give up at the outset and meritorious cases will not be brought.
The effects of legal aid cuts might have been mitigated by the no win, no fee system. But here is the double whammy.
The Jackson proposals will make it more difficult in the future for cases to be brought under no win, no fee agreements.
Jackson is determined to introduce risk and cost liability to claimants and to cut recoverable fees, including success fees.
This will change the economics of the no win no fee landscape and deter litigants and lawyers from taking cases on.
The legal aid and Jackson proposals will shortly begin their journey through parliament.
Why is there not more fuss?
Everyone seems to be up in arms about the proposed privatisation of the NHS but the fight to protect legal aid struggles to gain support.
Partly this is because people do not value lawyers until they need one.
We must now reinforce the lobby of the legal profession, judges, advice agencies and charities to communicate the enormity of what is proposed to the public and to MPs.
We must call on parliamentarians in the Commons and Lords to stop or amend the proposals.
If we can afford to bomb Libya, we should be able to find the money to preserve a system which enables citizens to enforce their civil rights.
We have had the benefit of a funded legal aid scheme for over 60 years and we should not allow it to be taken away without a fight.
Patrick Allen is senior partner of Hodge Jones & Allen LLP, a firm which has dealt with legal aid cases for 33 years"