John, Donna and Tom went to see local MP Nick Clegg recently to express our worries about the current pressures in delivering services under legal aid/public funding and to challenge parts of the bill presently going through Parliament. We fear some of the proposals will have a major and sadly negative effect upon people who have limited means.
Mr Clegg said the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, was undertaking a thorough review of the legal aid framework which was necessary as the budget had ‘ballooned’ in recent years. Donna challenged this assertion because the Government had compared spending in the United Kingdom with Europe who have a different system. The Government suggests that the cost of legal advice in the UK is higher than in Europe. Donna told him that the figures produced in Europe are shown less the costs of the general administration. This means they look far lower. If you add back in the costs of those administration to the cost of providing legal advice then costs in the UK appear competitive.
The effect of the Government policy is such that it will restrict access to justice for many categories of cases including for example, applications relating to contact in children cases and those seeking to resist domestic violence. Mr Clegg accepted that the proposed restriction upon legal aid in domestic violence matters was a delicate matter requiring further and detailed consideration. The present proposal would restrict or remove legal aid to victims of violence unless they first attended a session of mediation. The last thing they need is to have to confront a violent partner across a table in a mediation session.
At a time when a UK tax payer appears to be funding huge cases in the High Court in London involving Russian billionaire businessmen, we, at Best, are worried that the system seems unable or unwilling to fund access to justice for persons with genuine cases who have limited means.
We talked to Mr Clegg about the future of legal aid in criminal proceedings. The Government may seek to restrict people’s rights to free and essential independent advice when arrested by the police. We expressed concern that the UK Government may consider such restriction when the Government of Turkey has been told that the right of their citizens to access legal advice in custody is a condition of their entry into the European Union.
We also asked about overall crime figures and whether they demonstrate an actual reduction in criminal activity or merely reflect the increased use of diversion whereby serious cases are not processed to Court but dealt with by way of fixed penalties or cautions. In fairness, Mr Clegg did not have specific information to enable him to reply. He felt unable to comment upon the police’s decisions in individual cases.
We had a healthy conversation with Mr Clegg and raised many points with him. He listened intently and patiently to our representations.
Donna was invited to write to him to specify our concerns and to say what we would ask him to raise with Mr Clarke and what we would like him to bear in mind when debating the issues in Parliament.
Donna has written to Mr Clegg. We await his reply.
Date: 13 March 2012