So the general election is behind us and we got a clear result; no horse trading over votes (for now) and one party that can now begin to implement its manifesto. But the hope must be, as it is always, that the listening mode of the politicians that is such a part of every election campaign isn’t simply left behind; effective communication, resulting in positive outcomes always needs to be a two way process. So the promises and the commitments made during the campaign need to be woven afresh in the light of what response they received during the campaign as well as the final result at the ballot box.
And one area where there is still a real need for our politicians to listen is in the area of legal aid. Our last piece on this highlighted the crucial role access to justice has in our society and the impact its absence can have on the lives of individuals. The voices that highlighted this have not gone silent and will continue to be raised in defence of this fundamental principle of fairness. They will be directed, consistently and strongly at the new justice secretary, Michael Gove, who, one hopes, will be prepared to engage with the debate and look again at this area.
Free and fair access to justice is something this new government cannot afford to ignore, in any sense. It cannot afford, reputationally, to be seen to preside over an increasing fractured society where fundamental rights are discarded – the electorate will be unforgiving. It cannot afford, pragmatically, to fail to address what may easily become a running sore in society, especially when we see the potential polarisation of different parts of our country. And it cannot afford the increased financial and economic cost that a divided society will increasingly bring with it.
In short, this is the time for the rhetoric of One Nation to start to make itself felt in reality, and there is no better starting point than in the basic right of all to be treated fairly under the law. In the last couple of years there has been a price paid by men and women and, even more sadly, by children who no longer have that access to justice that we had come to take for granted. But there are developments that offer hope to some – Gateshead Citizens’ Advice Bureau has just launched Job Law, a service designed to help people with employment grievances who might otherwise find it impossible to access professional legal assistance since the abolition of legal aid for employment law in 2013. The Citizens’ Advice Bureau in Stevenage has launched a similar service.
There is, undoubtedly, a need for these services. No one wants to see lengthy and spurious claims being brought to employment tribunals at great cost to employers and society; this is in no one’s interests. However, for any workforce to be productive and to deliver what is required of it the individuals within that workforce need to have a degree of security and to feel that they are valued and respected. If they do not, and if they feel that they have few, if any rights at work, then they, and ultimately all of us suffer. A secure and a content workforce is a productive workforce; look at Germany!
So, perhaps, in listening mode, our government will re-visit the approach to legal aid and see it for what it is: a benchmark of our civil liberties and fundamental rights and an investment in our future. Access to justice is a both a foundation and a measure of a free, fair and successful society.