Westminster Watch – April 2014

Toby Craig contemplates the familiar story behind the recent further reductions to the criminal legal budget.

And so, on 27 February, after months of consultation, discussion and protest, the Government announced its final intention further to reduce criminal legal aid. This comes on top of the swingeing cuts to civil legal aid, implemented through LASPO last year.

It totals over £550m worth of cuts; more than a quarter of the total legal aid budget, sliced off in a couple of years. On any examination, the final package is pretty eye-watering. Terrible for advocates; horrifying for solicitors, many of whom face obliteration as the number of duty contracts is reduced to just 525, worst of all for the public who depend on legal aid to ensure access to justice.

Concessions were nowhere to be seen. Any crumbs of comfort were so inconsequential that they barely merit discussion. A review of the new regime after a year, considering that there is a general election in that period, will tie nobody’s hands and offers no prospect of revision when it becomes clear how dreadfully wrong-headed the Government’s approach on this issue has been. The review of court processes, led by Lord Justice Leveson, may well produce savings and effciencies, but the absence of any commitment to reinvest any savings to support a properly functioning system could scarcely be more pronounced.

There is little which can be expounded on this other than that which has already been said multiple times before. Again and again, the legal profession has argued clearly and articulately as to the consequences of the continued decimation of public funding. It has produced carefully crafted consultation responses, supported by scrupulously constructed figures making a cogent financial case against cuts. It has developed principled public interest arguments about the damage which will be done to the justice system in a post-cuts environment and the inherent dangers to the public of having access to a less diverse pool of practitioners where quality is being driven away. It has run an effective campaign across social media and using traditional PR. It has even taken, extremely reluctantly, unprecedented direct action, with arresting images outside court centres around the country.

But in terms of reversing or mitigating the scale of the cuts, it all seems to have been for nothing.

The response is always the same; we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world at around £2 billion a year…and on it goes like a broken record. We must all be able to intone that mantra now. But of course we don’t have the most expensive and it doesn’t cost £2 billion a year. If it did, that was before the Government took a chainsaw both to civil and to criminal legal aid, and the crime rate fell to such a level that expenditure had decreased by over £100 million a year anyway. But why let the facts get in the way? It is difficult to know what to read into the Government’s intransigence.

The state of the public finances does not provide carte blanche for Government departments to pursue ruinous reforms. It is too often rolled out as the justification for reforms which are ill thought through and may well cost more than they save.

It does not excuse the Government’s, and indeed the Lord Chancellor’s, continual obstinacy and failure to engage with the profession in any meaningful way.

Repeating again and again a set of rehearsed lines which everyone knows to be inaccurate is grossly irresponsible at best. The justice system which the Department purports to represent and operate, and the public interest it purports to serve, deserve better. The more it fails to engage with the arguments before it, the weaker its position appears.

In other news

It was far from a quiet month in Westminster. Mounting tensions in Ukraine provided a stark reminder of the fragility of the post-Cold War settlement, as Russian forces poured into Crimea.

Almost in tandem with the Winter Olympics in Sochi, it is hard to think of a poorer commitment to the supposedly global values at the heart of the Olympic movement by a host nation. With the World Cup due to be staged in Russia in 2018, one dreads to think what the encore might be. Ed Miliband engineered a radical shift in the Labour Party’s relationships with the Trade Unions at a special conference and Harriet Harman found herself in an ugly spat with the Daily Mail about the relationship between the National Council for Civil Liberties, where she was a legal officer, and the Paedophile Information Exchange (a row which subsequently drew in Fulford LJ, along with Patricia Hewitt and Jack Dromey). Electioneering also started to heat up, both north of the border, with the Scottish independence referendum later this year, but also in advance of European elections, with Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage agreeing to square off in a television debate (not quite Ali v Frazier). But all of that was difficult to focus on in the light of the dispiriting and demoralising legal aid announcement. The fight may not be over, but the road ahead looks bumpier and more impassable than ever before. Spare a thought for another substantial piece of news emerging from Westminster; the shocking findings of the Lawrence report, including that undercover police were spying on the Lawrence family. It was written by none other than an independent advocate. What better example of the public interest case for their continuing relevance and importance?

By Royal Appointment

Regular readers of WW (all three of you) will remember the other half of what was previously a double act, Charles Hale. Proving indisputably that WW is a stepping stone to bigger and better things, he recently acquired a couple of letters after his name.

Westminster’s loss is Her Majesty’s gain. Congratulations CH; it couldn’t be more deserved. Though with the season his football team is having, he needed at least some good news… I can only guess what might be in store for me, should I ever leave these pages behind me. Until next time.

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