- Created: Thursday, 28 March 2013 14:01
- Written by Carol Brickley
Cuts to Legal Aid provision, taking effect at the beginning of April, will seal the poverty trap for the poorest sections of the working class in Britain. Communities already facing the brunt of the government’s attack on living standards, in particular those who rely on welfare benefits to survive with dignity, will now be unable to seek legal advice, help or representation to challenge the unfair and worsening conditions they are forced to suffer.
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 aims to deliver the lowest level of legal help that will comply with the Convention on Human Rights, at the least possible cost. The current £2bn legal aid budget will be cut by £320m with more cuts promised by the Ministry of (In)Justice. Among the areas no longer covered by Legal Aid, except in extreme circumstances, are child custody, clinical negligence, benefits, employment, immigration, housing, debt, education, welfare and divorce. By the government’s own estimates the cuts will affect more than 600,000 people adversely, especially women, children, elderly and disabled people, the main targets of the government’s austerity cuts.
The Legal Aid system was introduced after the Second World War as part of the welfare state. Its aim was to provide equality before the law by creating a means-tested entitlement to legal aid in all courts. At its outset in 1950, 80% of the population was eligible: by shifting the means-test threshold downwards, eligibility has fallen dramatically; by 1973 it had dropped to 40% and by 2008 to 29%. With the economic crisis this has risen again slightly. However, there can be no doubt that, with new measures to restrict its scope, the government is not ‘tinkering’ with the system but aiming to destroy it.
The cuts are part of the wholesale attack on the welfare state. The Legal Aid budget represents one-third of 1% of government spending, but the ideological importance of cutting the welfare state far outweighs any economics. That is why immigration advice was the first area to be cut from the scope of Legal Aid, leaving asylum seekers and so-called ‘illegal’ immigrants without any access to justice or means of challenging executive decisions. All main political parties now believe that attacking immigrants is a vote winner. Significantly the Ministry of Justice summary of Legal Aid scope provisions has failed to list immigration detention matters, are in fact eligible. The government hopes that public opinion will similarly favour the relentless assault on benefit claimants and the poorest sections of the working class.
It is no accident that debt, housing and benefits are no longer covered by Legal Aid. In contrast to the rest of Europe, the private rented housing sector has grown from 11% in the 1980s to 17%. This growth has been driven by buy-to-let mortgages with little protection for tenants and the decline in council housing. The cuts in housing benefit in April, together with changes in security of tenure, have massively benefited private landlords. In the next year, an overwhelming concern for many working class people will be keeping the roof over their heads.
No one should have any illusions that a defeat of the Coalition government at the next election will change this outlook. The attack on Legal Aid began under the previous Labour government, and will be maintained if they ever come to power again. Having created a monstrous system of crime and punishment– under Labour more than 3,600 new criminal offences were introduced – in 2010 then Minister of Justice, Jack Straw, set about reducing spending on criminal Legal Aid. The Coalition government has simply continued what he started, and has now announced that it will introduce contract tendering for criminal representation later in 2013. The aim will be to cheapen and to reduce the quality of representation for anyone facing criminal charges. Remember the conveyor belt justice meted out to young people arrested during the 2011 riots, including overnight court sittings and immediate imprisonment.
English law has always been an instrument of class rule, favouring the interests of the ruling class over those of the working class and the poorest in society. As this capitalist crisis deepens, so the inequality we all face in every aspect of our lives will intensify. Lord Neuberger, Supreme Court President and the UK’s most senior judge, got one thing right when he criticised the government’s Legal Aid cuts, secret courts and threats to human rights. He was wrong about the government being ‘in danger of destroying a 700-year-old right of access to fair and open justice to all’. There has never been such a right, as generations of political opponents of the British state will testify. However, his fear that ‘those frustrated by an inability to seek justice would “take the law into their own hands”’ makes a lot more sense. The ruling class should fear it.