The old adage about money buying justice is deeply rooted in working-class communities and with good reason, for centuries while in theory and in law the justice system was open to all and all were equal before the law was a reality, the practice as with most other things was rather different. Justice was for those with money and political influence and when the Barons forced King John to sign Magna Carta at Runnymede they never intended it to apply to the lower orders, and it didn’t.
Although down the centuries Parliament became more representative of the country and broadened the franchise which enabled more and more legislation to be passed which levelled the playing field and expanded the rights of ordinary working people, there remained the problem of access to much of what was enacted and had become law. It wasn’t until the first post Second World War Labour Government that the concept of legal aid that was free at the point of delivery was, like healthcare, available to everyone. Yet that period lasted a mere forty years and since the Thatcher regime began in 1979 there has been a persistent assault on the whole legal aid system which has intensified since the accession to power of Cameron and the Tory/Lib Dem coalition and continues unabated since the last election.
The Tory mantra is to cut public expenditure to the bone and nowhere has that happened more so than in the allocation of funds to the Ministry of Justice which in the period 2010–2019 lost forty per cent of its budget the most of any ministry. Yet from this reduced budget there are three things that must be funded, the courts' service, probation and prisons, legal aid comes a poor fourth and the damage inflicted is now becoming catastrophic. For a whole range of people legal representation in courts, before tribunals and in a whole range of other aspects of the law now means being a Litigant in Person, a LiP, or relying on an increasingly overloaded voluntary sector.
I can testify from my own experience as a councillor, council leader and now a volunteer the sheer human misery that is resulting from these cuts which go, very largely, unreported and unrecognised. Old age pensioners left for days on hospital trollies are news, a woman losing her children to social services because her universal credit is weeks in arrears and she has been convicted of shoplifting food to feed them isn’t.
Equally un-newsworthy are the families evicted from their sub-standard accommodation by landlords using S21 of the 1988 Housing Act after they have made a complaint about the disrepair of the property. The fact that to do so is illegal under another section of another statute, The Deregulation Act 2015, is of no consequence when the family have no way to enforce their rights becoming one of the hundreds of thousands evicted in this manner every year.
On top of this is that fact that, as The Guardian reported on the 27th of January, since 2010 half of the Magistrates Courts in England and Wales have closed, there has also been a huge reduction in the County Courts so at the same time as access to advice is being shut down the distances that people have to go and the costs of doing that increase. The telephone lines to these courts are always busy, as I can testify, and when a person in need of advice or a simple form gets through after running through the credit on a pre-paid phone the harassed and overworked member of staff probably, working for an agency, cannot help!
Having stated what the problem is, how is it to be fixed as clearly the immediate situation should not be allowed to continue? In discussions with Labour colleagues, the prevailing orthodoxy is to get a Labour government elected and this problem, as with everything else, will be fixed. That may well happen sooner than later but the problem of a lack of legal representation is with us now and the damage is in the present. The solution I believe is simple and also a vote winner.
A look at the list of services provided by councils will reveal that while they are broad nowhere do they include legal advice or representation that being left to the massively overworked Law Centre and Citizens Advice Bureaux. As a matter of priority Labour-controlled councils should implement the following.
A stated commitment to the fact that access to prompt and competent legal advice and if necessary representation in court is a basic human right.
An undertaking to the fact that the council has a duty to provide such a service if only on moral grounds.
An immediate program will be launched to identify buildings across each borough either already council owned or otherwise to provide a walk-in legal service to screen whatever is needed and to further direct the applicant.
A network of volunteer advisors to implement a core of a small paid staff which will manage the cases through internet connections with legal firms that have volunteered to be a part of the scheme on a borough by borough basis. The internet has changed much of the way we live our lives and the need for the large office has disappeared.
All that is lacking is the political will and I hope that this article will kick start the process of putting what I am proposing into action. While the time for debate on going forward is, as far as I am concerned, over I would like to use the comments section of this blog to discuss the whole subject of access to the law. Nobody knows it all so I would appreciate your views to which I will respond.