WestminsterWatch - January 2013

Winter of Discontent? Toby Craig looks at what the year ahead holds both for the country and for the Bar

As the strains of Auld Lang Syne fade gently away, the stoppers on the sherry decanters are replaced for another year and the festive decorations are restored to the attic, we should all now be rested, rejuvenated and ready to greet 2013. And what a year it promises to be. We may not have a home Olympics to look forward to, or a big election, or even a Jubilee, but there will be plenty to fill these pages in the coming months.

The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement (an odd title for a budget update delivered in December) provided us all with a stark reminder of the challenges ahead as it became clear that the Government is not going to fulfil its core financial pledge within the lifetime of this Parliament. The structural deficit will not be eradicated and neither debt nor borrowing will be at the levels that the Government would have initially hoped for when the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats entered into the Coalition Agreement. Austerity looks set to continue, at least, until 2018. The Eurozone is far from secure and the UK’s AAA credit rating is not safe. Departmental budgets can expect to undergo further cuts; another 1% in 2013-14 and an additional 2% in 2014-15. Benefits are being squeezed and pension contributions are being limited. As George Osborne so often tells us: we’re all in this together.

In this context, it might seem hard to believe, but it could have been a lot worse. Indeed, Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls (normally an aggressive and confident performer in the House) seemed dumbstruck, when called to respond to the Statement, to discover that both the deficit and borrowing are still falling. That was not in the script, and contrary to most pundits’ earlier projections.

That overused political aphorism “it’s the economy stupid” seems as true now as it always has. Coined by the Comeback Kid, the Coalition will be hoping to channel some of Bill Clinton’s luck over the coming months as they continue to strive to achieve the green shoots which still seem so deeply embedded.

The question which will become increasingly important is for how long the public is prepared to accept and go along with an austere environment which does not appear to be yielding any benefits. As cuts continue to bite with no sign of letting up, keeping the electorate on side will be one of the Government’s biggest challenges.

LASPO looms
The most significant legal event of 2013 will almost certainly be the implementation, in spring, of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act. Normally a time of regeneration and renewal, this, instead, will see effective access to justice wither away on the vine. That’s if the tree hasn’t been chopped down altogether.

We all know the headlines - £350m of cuts, year-on-year, from the civil legal aid budget; large swathes of the law removed from scope, including: all private family law, unless domestic abuse is involved; all clinical negligence, excluding cases involving complex pre- or peri-natal brain injury; the majority of social welfare law, including housing, unless the claimant is at immediate risk of homelessness; and many areas of administrative, public and social welfare law, including immigration and education. It is a long and depressing list. To make matters worse, the lingering feeling, looking at the additional projected cuts to the MoJ’s budget, that there are more cuts to come, does little to alleviate the gloom.

For years, the Bar has striven to demonstrate its value to society. However, a sad fact of life is that as hard as we might try, sometimes it is only in the absence of something (long-neglected or otherwise), that its worth becomes clear. The nightmare scenario of many vulnerable self-representing litigants doing their best to enforce or defend their rights in courts across England and Wales will soon become a reality. The pro bono community, advice centres and professional bodies will all, doubtless, do their best to plug the gap and to continue to raise awareness of a huge problem not of their making. But it will not be enough. For the Bar and the society it seeks to serve, 2013 may be a further and catastrophic step in the erosion of the justice system as we presently understand it.

The Bar battled long and hard over the (then) LASPO Bill, fighting many challenges and winning a number of important victories along the way, which will hopefully minimise, if not eradicate, some of the legislation’s impact. As well as the enormous work of many members of the Bar, led most ably by Stephen Cobb QC, the engine room was manned and operated throughout by Bar Council Communications Officer, Harriet Deane. Harriet is moving on to pastures new, switching to an exciting policy role with the Royal British Legion. Our loss is the RBL’s gain. Harriet’s immense talents and infectious personality will be hugely missed and everyone involved in LASPO will join me in wishing her well for the future.

Future gazing
So there we have it: a crumbling economy and legislation that threatens the world as we currently know it and that’s before we look at Leveson... Hyperbole? Perhaps a touch, but the drama and intrigue of the Westminster Village endures. And that is only dealing with what we know. The more interesting part is always the things we haven’t anticipated. So what can we look forward to in the year ahead? More Coalition splits? Ministerial scandal? Sleaze? Resignations? We will probably see them all, but the buzzwords for 2013 already look easy to identify...austerity, regulation and growth will all top the bill. Carry on as you were then. Happy New Year to all.

Toby Craig is the head of communications at the Bar Council.