For over 60 years legal has given people access to justice who otherwise couldn’t afford it. New government plans threaten this vital human right, says Gemma Blythe.
Earlier this year, the Ministry of Justice put forward its plans to reform legal aid.
The Government held a consultation period, running from April to June, and received a record 16,000 responses.
There will be a second consultation in September.
Areas of law which are subject to these cuts include Crime, Prison Law, Judicial Review and more.
Civil areas of law, such as family, housing and immigration have already had their Legal Aid slashed under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012.
Without legal aid, our legal system will divide into a two-tier system, which would separate those who can afford to pay for a solicitor, and those who cannot.
In the Government’s proposals, they intend to award criminal Legal Aid contracts to just 5 law firms in Kent, instead of the current 50 firms.
The only basis upon which the contract will be awarded is how cheap that firm can provide the service.
The fee structure proposed by the government would mean that a fee paid to a solicitor is the same, whether a client pleads guilty at the first hearing, or whether a lengthy contested trial is carried out.
Clearly this imposes a system of competing interests – namely the interests of the defendant in having a fair hearing and the financial implications of having a protracted trial for one small fee.
This will affect, in no small way, the trust in a relationship between a solicitor and a client.
WHAT ABOUT THE VICTIMS OF CRIME?
The Ministry of Justice have not carried out a risk assessment as to victims of crime in their proposals.
At a recent legal aid rally, organised by Justice Alliance UK, a mother of a rape victim, known as “Sally” to protect her daughter’s anonymity, stated that police blunders had allowed her daughter’s attacker to go unpunished.
She said: “What happened to my daughter was not just wrong, but illegal.
“We got officers disciplined for misconduct; we got an apology from the Director of Public Prosecutions. We brought a claim to show that the police have a legal duty to properly investigate rape.
“But if it hadn’t been for legal aid, I wouldn’t have been able to fight at all. I was, and am, an ordinary woman. My husband drove a taxi. I looked after my children. We had enough money to live on but not to pay for solicitors.
“It is people like me and my daughter that the changes in legal aid will really hurt. Legal aid means that ordinary people like my daughter have a voice.”
DO THE CRIME, DONE THE TIME?
Leroy Skeete spent 11 years in prison.
Towards the end of his sentence, he was told he would not be released until he had completed an offending behaviour course (even though he had not been in trouble).
The course was only available at a couple of prisons and it had a 5 year waiting list.
This is clearly an injustice.
Leroy was represented by the Prison Advice Service, with the help of legal aid, and successfully challenged the decision. Leroy was released in 2009.
I asked Leroy where he would be without Legal Aid.
He replied: “At best, languishing in a prison cell with an addiction to heroin used to dull the pain. At worst, another statistic, alongside the long list of prisoners, who have committed suicide due to a failing prison system in a supposedly advanced democratic society”.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
Not everyone arrested is a criminal, we are all assumed innocent until proven guilty.
In a democratic society, everyone should have the right to access justice. Legal Aid makes that possible.
Please do not let the Government pull the wool over your eyes, they are taking away our rights.
Please sign this online petition to Save UK Justice. https://submissions.epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/48628
Gemma is a law student, and caseworker at Kent Defence, a criminal law firm in Margate. Gemma blogs regularly about Legal Aid and the criminal justice system here https://gemmab82.wordpress.com/