The Con-Dem coalition already feels like something from the distant past. One name that we will always associate with the attacks on Access to Justice is Lord McNally. As many Liberal Democrats try to distance themselves from the excesses of their years in power, he has robustly defended the cuts which he engineered. In a speech last week he also criticised lawyers, saying –
‘A plea to all the lawyers – those coming up and those already there. You have got to accept that bandying about access to justice, it’s really quite fraudulent. To govern is to choose. Is £1.6bn access to justice? Or is it £2.4bn?’
Leaving aside the obvious insult, his final sentence is very telling. His definition of access to justice is limited to varying sums of money. Access to Justice is neither £1.6bn not £2.bn. It is not a commodity it is in fact the foundation stone of a justice system. Why have rights if ordinary people cannot rely on them?
This cheapening of justice is nothing new. Back in 2015 the former Justice Minister Lord Faulks QC described litigation as - ‘very much an optional activity’.
So seeking compensation for a catastrophic injury is the same as collecting stamps or going out to a nice restaurant. Losing the right to pursue or defend their rights can have a devastating effect on a person’s life.
The other problem with McNally’s comment is that he focuses on lawyers as if they are the only ones who are affected – lawyers, as ever, are the easy target! In fact there are hundreds of voluntary agencies who have lost funding and can longer help the most vulnerable. Back in 2013 I wrote this –
‘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.’
Earlier this year the Head of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger warned that shrinking of legal aid contributed to threat to Access to Justice –
I for one have no intention of shutting up about this matter. It goes to the heart of a justice system.
People rights cannot be reduced to simple mathematics or dismissed as optional activities.
Lawyers do not complain out of self interest.
They complain because they tend to be concerned about justice which is what brought many of us into the profession in the first place.