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Thursday, 23 June 2011

Another big mess the Tories are getting us into

I am dismayed that Ken Clarke’s modernising proposals for criminal justice have been shelved – if only the subject could be aired in a civilised and rational way, preferably with a gagging order on the Daily Mail, it might  have stood a chance.  But perhaps even more serious, are the proposed cuts to the Legal Aid budget which might save the Treasury £350m, but it will impoverish the country way beyond that saving.
The Justice Secretary says that legal aid will still be available for claims where people’s life or liberty is at stake, where they are at risk of serious physical harm, or immediate loss of their home, or where their children may be taken into care.  That’s certainly reassuring, but let’s just imagine a few other scenarios where it won’t any longer be available:

A woman goes into hospital for a routine hip replacement, contracts gangrene through the hospital’s negligence, which then requires further operations to rectify, resulting in a much longer recovery period, with considerable loss of earnings, and possibly a permanent disability requiring extra care and support, not to mention months, or years of further pain and suffering.

A building firm fails to erect its scaffolding properly and a worker falls, breaking his arm.  He’s an independent contractor, so if he can’t work, he isn’t paid.  It takes him 3 months to get fit to return. 

You’re a plumber and were contracted to do a lot of work on a flats conversion project.  You’ve been engaged in it for the best part of a year.  None of your invoices have been paid, you’ve been fobbed off with excuse after excuse and now you’ve had enough.  You threatened to take him to court and now the builder turns round and says your work was substandard.
There are thousands of scenarios like this, and more controversial ones – cases involving immigration, race, sex, disability discrimination, family cases where parents are locked into disputes over the children. 

Assuming you don’t have the money to take the case to court, you will have two choices – just put up with the injustice you’ve suffered, or try to do it yourself.  And this is where the proposals really fall down.  Countries that spend less on legal aid, spend considerably more on the court system, providing supporters, assistance and guidance to litigants in person to help them through the process.  That doesn’t happen here.  Litigants up till recently have been represented by someone who knows that they are doing, who speaks the language and understands the processes.  Litigants in person require a huge amount of hand holding.  Some judges will be prepared to help these people, but the net effect will be even more of a backlog, less certainty on timings, a clogging up of the system, which will, of course mean more costs.  Judge’s time doesn’t come cheap.
But the biggest loss will be to the moral and ethical foundation of the country; the UK will become a place where only the wealthy can enforce their rights. The victims of these cuts are ordinary people to whom bad things have happened, out of the blue, through no fault of their own.  They are not scroungers, they aren’t greedy, self-serving representatives of the litigation culture who will claim a few quid for stubbing their toe on the pavement, and we must not let the government, of the Daily Mail, persuade us that they are.   Think again, you Tories.  This is a crazy mistake.

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