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Friday, 12 June 2015

The Justice Minister from A Galaxy Far Far Away!

In one sense Lord Faulks QC should be congratulated. In a masterpiece of concision he has managed to summarise the government’s contempt for Access to Justice in one short sentence. Speaking in the House of Lords this week on the impact of Legal Aid Cuts, the Justice Minister said –

‘But the question that arises out of social welfare law is whether it is always necessary for everybody who has quite real problems to have a lawyer at £200-odd-an-hour, or whether there are better and more effective ways of giving advice.’

Politicians are often accused of being out of touch with the real world. By that test he is well ahead of the field.

Before 2013 there were hundreds of agencies providing advice. Lawyers were in the minority. For example the housing charity Shelter had provided advice on housing and homelessness for many years. Much of their work was funded by Legal aid contracts. In the run in to the April 2013 cuts they had to close down this service –

In the same year I met with workers from Citizens Advice Bureaux in Liverpool and wrote –

‘Advice on welfare benefits is removed entirely from the scope of legal aid. The Liverpool Citizens’ Advice Bureaux have been among the leading providers of advice in this field. In the last few years they have been able to assist 2500 people in debt cases and 6270 people with welfare rights issues. That is a total of 8770 people is the direst of need. After 1st April they will be able to advise…. None. Of course their dedicated workers do not want to let people down and many will continue help clients on a voluntary basis. But the reality is that thousands of our most vulnerable are going to be deprived of professional advice and assistance.’

Is it these agencies that Lord Faulks has in mind when he talks of – ‘better and more effective ways of giving advice’? Then why have they been starved of funding? In the same debate Lord Bach for the opposition said that the 52,000 social welfare case that received funding in 2014 marked an 88% drop compared to 2010.

But the Minister's genius doesn’t stop there. Not only has he insulted the entire voluntary sector, he has also managed to insult legal aid lawyers in the same sentence. £200 an hour? Legal Aid Lawyers would give their right arm to be paid anything like that amount. In the same week that Lord Faulks has made his bizarre claim, the MOJ has announced an 8.75% cut in legal aid fees –

Remember that from these fees firms have to pay wages, rent, IT costs etc and work long and anti-social hours. I wouldn’t do it!

This is the same Lord Faulks QC who recently said that litigation was ‘very much an optional activity’. Try saying that to the parents of Janet who I wrote about last month –

What is most alarming is that these are not the words of a young career politician who has never worked in the real world. He was a busy silk who acted for victims of medical negligence. I briefed him once, about 15 years ago. He did legal aid work. But that makes it all a bit more frightening. Is he simply sticking to his ‘brief’. Or is he reflecting the attitude of a government that, as far as justice goes, has bought into the philosophy of Homer Simpson?

‘Just because I don’t care, doesn’t mean I don’t understand’

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