By Jonathan Isaby
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Concerns from Tory MPs about the sentencing aspects of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill have been well covered, not least with Philip Davies' ConHome piece on the topic yesterday.
He repeated those concerns in a speech during yesterday's Second Reading debate on the bill, and was part of a small rebellion that opposed allowing the bill to pass that stage.
The bill was given a second reading by 295 votes to 212, but five Conservative MPs voted with Labour in the No lobby:
- Philip Davies
- Richard Drax
- Philip Hollobone
- David Nuttall
- Andrew Percy
One issue which has not received so much coverage is the fact that some of the 2010 intake have serious concerns about the proposed cuts to legal aid.
Helen Grant led the charge, saying that the plans to reform legal aid were "brave and bold" (isn't that Yes, Minister speak for "wrong"?) and set out her problems with what is currently envisaged.
"The plans rely on people being able to represent themselves, but what about people with learning difficulties, limited English or mental health problems? Those people cannot help themselves; they cannot do it. The plans rely on our hard-pressed voluntary sector dealing with the fallout from the legal sector, but our not-for-profit organisations are already overstretched and under-resourced."
"The plans rely on judges, magistrates and tribunal chairmen having the time to assist numerous litigants in person, but I can honestly tell hon. Members that that time does not exist, because judges already have back-to-back lists. Delays in court will become even worse. The plans rely on less dependency on legal proceedings, but as I have said before in the House, mediation is no panacea. It frequently fails, especially in family cases, where there is often an imbalance of power between the parties. Where will all the mediators come from? Who will pay for them?"
"The plans have telephone advice as an alternative to a trusted and recommended solicitor, but the law is complicated. The law can be an ass, and it is not easy to understand. Having tried to explain maintenance pending suit or some other aspect of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 to a frightened and vulnerable litigant, I can tell hon. Members that it makes clients feel frustrated and confused and leaves solicitors feeling quite inadequate.
"The plans badly impact on women, especially in the categories of family, education and housing law. Some 75% of domestic violence victims are women; 90% of single parents are women; and 97% of those who are eligible for child maintenance are women. Women are more likely to be in non-unionised jobs, and men are more likely to be financially better off and able to pay privately."
She was supported by Stephen Phillips QC, who is one of two sitting recorders in the Commons:
"I want the Bill to come back with a report from the Committee that it is satisfied that the most vulnerable in our society will continue to have access to justice in precisely the same way as those who are able to buy justice. I say that from the perspective of one who, as a lawyer, considers access to justice extraordinarily important.
"Like my hon. Friend, I am concerned about those particular provisions and how they might discriminate against some of the most vulnerable. That said, I have no doubt that the Bill will be amended in Committee and that the Government will listen; I hope that they will."
"I agree heartily with the strategy of discouraging too much litigation, particularly at a cost to the public purse. But surely the challenge that we are setting ourselves is to fillet out areas of waste while leaving intact the essential service of legal aid for the most vulnerable.
"I wonder whether the cuts as currently set out fall too harshly in an area that has as its sole objective the support for people who are least able to speak up for themselves… As we know, not everyone is able to speak up for themselves. We talk of telephone lines and of self-representations at tribunals, which are things that MPs could do, although naturally we hope not to be in that situation, but which many people who are less educated simply cannot."
She ended with a suggestion of her own:
"I am not saying that there are no cuts to be made—oh no. We have a major deficit to sort out and we must make these cuts. The Law Society has made some suggestions; I have another. I would like to look very carefully at the funding of trivial human rights cases, in which lawyers have spent huge sums on establishing largely technical violations of the European convention. For instance, how much money was spent last year by the last Government on legal aid for prisoners? Can we have less legal aid for prisoners and more for the most vulnerable in our society?"
Responding to the debate, justice minister Jonathan Djanogly rejected the criticisms made about legal aid and did not seem to offer the immediate prospect of accepting changes to the bill during its forthcoming committee stage:
"I thank hon. Members who have contributed today and those who have responded to the consultation, along with some 5,000 other people… We received a number of detailed alternative proposals from respondents to our consultation, including the Law Society… We carefully considered those points in our consultation response, but we are clear that the proposals put forward by respondents do not, overall, represent a realistic alternative to our programme of reform."
"The Justice for All campaign also asked us to improve alternatives to legal processes instead of cutting legal help. The Government seized the point, which is why we are increasing the funding available for mediation by £10 million. Some 50% of the proposals suggested by the Law Society amounted to new taxation, but legal aid is primarily funded out of general taxation, and the Government are seeking to reduce the amount of public spending overall. The deficit is also shared across government, and suggestions of cost shifting will not address the overall financial position… We must make tough choices and target scarce legal aid on those who need it most."