Published on RedPepper.org, by Jon Robins, September 2011.
A bill going through parliament threatens to make access to justice a right available only to the rich. Jon Robins reports: Access to justice is the hallmark of a civil society, the coalition government tells us in its recent green paper on legal aid. It is an assertion that is rendered immediately meaningless by the subsequent Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, published in June.
If the legislation goes through in its proposed form, it will represent a wrecking ball released in the direction of the system of publicly funded law that was conceived of as an essential pillar of our welfare state more than 60 years ago.
The government wants to scrap publicly funded advice for what’s known as social welfare law – that’s advice on debt, benefits, employment, family (unless it involves domestic violence) and housing advice (unless someone is left homeless). It’s a shocking attack on the poor and vulnerable … //
… It was PACE, or the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, that introduced the universal right to representation by a solicitor at a police station. That landmark legislation was introduced as a result of bitter lessons being learnt from a succession of miscarriages of justice in the 1970s and 1980s where suspects weren’t given advice in the police station.
The right to legal advice in a police station is a fundamental cornerstone of our criminal justice system. Ministers didn’t even consult on scrapping it. The government’s plan is to means test suspects before they qualify for public funds. A civil servant will decide whether you can afford your own lawyer.
Most experts think the government will drop the proposal on two grounds. First, it is totally impractical to means test someone at 4am, especially if they are exhausted, drunk or off their head on drugs as some will inevitably be (unless of course they have brought in their wage slips, proof of welfare benefits entitlement and so on). And second, it is probably against the law.
Only last October the supreme court ruled that Scotland could no longer get away with not having a statutory right for legal advice at police stations. The EU has just published a directive on the right to legal advice and representation at police stations (the French bolstered their right to legal advice in custody last year).
‘In England, justice is open to all – like the Ritz,’ quipped the supreme court justice, Lady Hale. Courts are and should be a last resort, she said, ‘but they should be a last resort which is accessible to all, rich and poor alike.’ Justice is a right, not a privilege. (full text).