The cuts to legal aid, and proposed restrictions on No Win No Fee represent an assault on democracy, and a real threat to justice in the United Kingdom
I’m currently deep in the studies for my final year exams, so I had decided I wasn’t going to blog until those were done. But life is unpredictable, and occasionally something will come along that outrages me so much that I have to rant about it, just so I don’t have a coronary.
Some background first. I’m a third year law student (studying at the University of Sussex, if you really want to know). I’m also a left winger, a Labour Party member, and a keen believer in equality and justice (of the social and legal variety). And I have a keen interest in politics, hence why I was watching the Budget on Wednesday afternoon.
And it was there that I heard George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer in a government increasingly dedicated to social and economic vandalism, announce that No Win No Fee cases were to be restricted, as part of a “growth” strategy to free small businesses from, I’m guessing, frivolous cases. This is part of a larger assault on the rights of employees, but that’s not where I’m coming from with this.
I’m not an ardent supporter of No Win No Fee (otherwise known as Conditional Fee), because it does have the potential to encourage both ambulance chasing on the part of law firms, and frivolous cases by claimants. However, the background and context of Conditional Fees should be considered.
They were introduced in 1990, in the Courts and Legal Services Act, as a part of the reduction in the scope of legal aid. The idea was that instead of the state paying large sums in legal aid, lawyers could be allowed to charge no fee to their client, except upon victory. Not a particularly positive move in my view, but you can see where it was coming from.
The current proposal to restrict Conditional Fees comes in a climate of heavy cuts. The Legal Aid bill has not escaped this. Legal Aid is being removed for matters of family law, clinical negligence, education, employment, immigration, benefits, debt and housing. Which is a fairly sweeping attack on the civil law.
The cynics amongst you may notice that certain of these areas are subject to cuts and “reform” in themselves, and that the cuts to legal aid in these areas will reduce the number of challenges the government will face on those matters. Whether or not you want to think that is deliberate is up to you, but it certainly seems suspicious to me.
But the really chilling aspect of this is just how many people will now be unable to access the courts in search of justice. One of the key principles of a free and democratic society is that the courts should be open to all, and that justice should be for everyone. Or at least, that’s what I believe is essential in a free and democratic society. Apparently the government disagrees. Restricting Conditional Fees is one thing, but when it excludes thousands of people from pursuing just cases simply because they don’t have the money, it becomes a disgrace and a repression of justice.
Please note, when I say “poor”, I don’t in fact mean poor. Lawyers are expensive. Very expensive. Whatever you think of that is irrelevant, because it’s how the situation stands. Only the richest can afford to pay lawyers to fight their case in the courts- anyone on middle, low or no incomes will not be able to afford it.
This will, no doubt, be lost in a squall of other arguments. The rest of the budget was far from exclusively good news, and I expect that arguing over tax cuts, cuts to inheritance tax, and economic growth will take precedence, but this is essentially important. The whole concept of the rule of law requires that unlawful behaviour and unjust acts can be challenged in the courts. These measures threaten that ability, and represent a chilling, terrifying assault on justice and democracy. This needs to be seen for what it really is.