I am extremely concerned about the government’s plans regarding criminal legal aid. In order to have any semblance of “equality of arms” a poor, inarticulate, marginalised citizen taking on the State needs good legal representation, not the cheapest possible representation. This follows hard on the heels of the near-abolition of civil legal aid. It is not possible to strip out £0.5billion from the legal aid budget and not expect consequences. Legal aid is an essential pillar of the justice system. Accessible, good quality legal representation is the only way to ensure that evidence is properly tested in court. Without it, miscarriages of justice are inevitable.
I am wholly unconvinced that replacing a competitive landscape of local providers with centrally-commissioned monopolies will be an improvement on the status quo. As I said today at the legal aid demonstration outside Parliament, how can it be that for all our other public services, the government says that quality comes through choice, but not through legal aid? A decline in services will erode the greatest safeguard we have against the State abusing its most important powers.
The Justice Secretary Chris Grayling likes to have us believe that this is about stopping ambulance-chasing lawyers from taking the taxpayer for a ride. Anyone who has ever worked in the legal profession, or knows anyone who does, will know how disingenuous that is. Criminal legal aid work is the least well-paid, most unglamorous branch of the law. Those who work in that field do so overwhelmingly out of a sense of public service and a commitment to justice being done.
Anyone at anytime could find themselves in a police station and accused of a crime. It is really important to ensure that they are properly represented. This government is threatening to bring in the changes without proper debate and should be ashamed.