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Simon Richards

I’ve never really seen my father lose his temper with someone else. Don’t get me wrong, he’s lost his temper plenty of times with members of the family (gosh, do I remember those days), but his attitude to others has always been impeccable.

That is, until my wife and I, together with my parents, went for a Sunday afternoon stroll in Richmond Park.

The place was like Parliament-on-the-green, with a number of researchers and MPs on leisurely wanders. One man, walking with his wife and nearly covering his whole face with an oversized beanie, caught my eye immediately.

From a distance I had to make the conscious decision not to inform my parents of just who was approaching, for fear of the repercussions. Sure enough, when I told my father who had just walked past, his sudden turn and dart for the Secretary of State belied his nearly seventy years.

For my father and mother are both solicitors. And Chris Grayling is currently undergoing the biggest transformation of legal aid in generations.

Duty solicitors play a vital role in the justice system. They act as a check on the power of certain policemen and women, and as a guardian of justice throughout the judicial process. They also ensure those who would not be able to afford it are represented in a way that our long-standing history of fairness and justice demands: equal access and the principle of “innocent until proven guilty”. Yet the measures Grayling continues to push through will, in all but a select number of cases, decimate this provision.

The Secretary of State is drastically cutting the number of solicitors available through legal aid, with the Law Society Gazette saying two-thirds of firms who currently offer the service will be able to do so no longer. In their place, a limited number of contracts will be issued to firms under the term “Duty Provider Work”, with solicitors facing an average fee cut of up to 17.5 per cent. Never fear, though, providers of legal aid services would be allowed to take on an unlimited amount of “Own Client Work” – where each individual has to pay thousands of pounds for representation.

Deliberately understating it, these changes will bring chaos to the justice system. It means that, as the Shadow Secretary of State Sadiq Khan has rightly pointed out, miscarriages of justice would flourish. Without representation, someone who has committed no crime and faces an unscrupulous charge has the odds firmly stacked up against them.

The Law Society has proven to be ineffective, the Ministry of Justice has seldom met with interested parties to gain a more considered view, and the media has left the issue well alone. If the number of doctors was being slashed almost immeasurably, you can be sure we would have had protest after demonstration after strikes. There’s certainly been no eyelid batted at this – one or two eye lashes at most.

It has already become a game of political point-scoring three months before the general election. Khan has recently said he would abandon the plans in their current form, wooing potentially thousands of Conservative-leaning professionals alienated by recent decisions.

And it is not just criminal legal aid being slashed – severe cuts to civil legal aid have also been announced. Indeed, on Wednesday the Public Accounts Committee released its report into these cuts, and it makes for grim reading. The Committee points out that people who are no longer eligible for legal aid will be prevented from securing “effective access to justice”. It goes on to say it is “deeply disturbing” that Grayling’s reforms were “based not on evidence but on an objective to cut costs as quickly as possible”.

“Who cares?” Grayling seems to say. “As long as I can go back to the Prime Minster and show just how much I’ve cut in departmental spending, who cares about the long term impact?” The recent High Court ruling that the Minister of Justice acted “unlawfully” in its consultation on the proposals probably goes someway to answering that, and gives an indication of the consequences to come.

At the end of the day, part of me thinks I should have let my father at Grayling, partly so he would have heard the strength of feeling. But also, perhaps more importantly, for the sheer fun of two bald-headed men going at it hammer and tong.

43 comments for: Grayling’s reforms to legal aid are damaging and unfair

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