"Legal aid bill is law - the fight back starts nowNow the legal aid bill is law, how do we preserve access to justice?
Jon Robins guardian.co.uk, Thursday 3 May 2012 11.45 BST Article history Hackney Law Centre is fighting back by raising its profile in the community Photograph: Hackney Law Centre
There were parts of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo) that were "not just bad but actually wicked", Lord Bach told his fellow peers last Tuesday. I met Bach who led the opposition savaging of the Bill straight after it finished its passage through parliament.
"We got it through," crowed Jonathan Djanogoly as we pass on the way to the Lords' canteen. It has to be said the legal aid minister was exhibiting the kind of body language that landed him in such hot water in the Commons last month. It has been close to 18 months since the government published its legal aid green paper; and the government has managed to get a hugely controversial bill, savaged by the Lords, on to the statute books pretty much intact.
Bach says the legislation puts "Britain back at least 25 years". Few would disagree that the former Labour justice secretary has lived up to his rather excellent Twitter handle (@fightbach); but, frankly, the fight has only just started. Bach's singular focus on defending social welfare law should be commended. The legal aid bill was a sprawling legislative monster that threw together many competing interests. The danger was that the arguments around preserving "poverty law" would be drowned out by vested interests with deeper pockets and to a certain extent it has.
But the ideas behind social welfare law received a fair airing and much sympathy in the Lords, largely thanks to Bach. As the former criminal defence barrister put it, his fellow peers hated the bill.
The great sadness is that it made such little difference. Yes, important amendments were made but they were at the edges – and that is not to diminish the significance of the concessions around, for example, domestic violence. But the bottom line is that the proposals aim to remove £350m of £2.2bn legal aid scheme - and they do that (in large part) by scrapping social welfare law.
So the legal aid bill got royal assent this week. One battle ends and another more pressing one begins: how to preserve the idea of access to justice in a pretty devastated post-Laspo landscape. "Laspo becoming law is not just a cut, that would be manageable,' writes Julie Bishop on legalvoice.org.uk. "It is the removal of free advice across the spectrum of poverty law." .............."