Legal aid has been given a heightened profile in the run up to the general election in two days’ time. A letter to The Guardian newspaper over the weekend, signed by a range of many distinguished and informed heavyweights from the legal, medical and social care world makes a good case for a fresh look at some of the changes that have come about in legal aid over the past few years.
The letter talks about “an unprecedented programme of cuts” that is reflected in “eye watering statistics” showing a devastating impact on the lives of individuals affected by the diminution of legal aid availability.
It is a fundamental principle of our common law system that people have access to justice. And we know that for this to happen then we cannot rely on everyone having their own, sufficient resources, to be able to support often costly and protracted legal cases. This is especially so in the criminal law, where a just and fair legal process can mean the difference between liberty and incarceration. If the number of unrepresented defendants in criminal trials (as, it must be said, as a result of the fewer resources allocated to legal aid) continues to grow we must surely run the risk of an increased number of miscarriages of justice.
It may strike some as ironic that we are having to debate these issues as we celebrate the eight hundredth anniversary of Magna Carta which, whilst not a document primarily about criminal justice (indeed this gets little mention) is looked to as the basis for our common law system and human rights by many. It’s worth being reminded of what this charter actually does say, and why it’s become such a topic of great interest that reaches beyond the usual band of historians, academics, lawyers and constitutionalists:
The most famous clauses of Magna Carta are numbered 39 and 40. “No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any other way ruined, nor will we go against him or send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” And, “to no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice.”
The letter to The Guardian may, perhaps, offer a latter day reflection on these clauses: “Access to justice is more than just a public good which we can choose to fund generously when we are told our economic fortunes allow. Without access to justice for all, inequalities take on a more dangerous edge which threatens the legitimacy of not just the justice system but our democracy.”
Criminal justice, and specifically the issue of legal aid has not had much of a profile during this general election campaign, at least in the mainstream reporting and campaigning that we have witnessed. It is, however, so fundamental to our way of life and our liberties, in many cases peoples’ physical liberty, that we ignore it at our peril. Whichever political party, or parties enter government after Thursday they should be in no doubt that they hold a precious commodity in their hands: justice and access to justice for each and every one of our fellow citizens. To overlook this for any kind of short term financial or economic gain is not only against fundamental principles we hold precious but, ironically, counterproductive – a poor justice system demonstrating under investment will, undoubtedly lead to a poorer society in every sense.
See the open letter here- http://www.theguardian.com/law/2015/may/01/legal-aid-cuts-threaten-very-democracy