Friday, 6 January 2017

Justice for some

In this post I want to draw the links between two current UK news stories. The first concerns the report today that forensic science services are operating in a risky way. These services, which are crucial to the criminal justice system, were largely privatised in 2012 in a move that was heavily criticised at the time. Since then, repeated concerns have been raised about it. It is a story with many affinities with the horsemeat scandal of 2013 that I posted about at the time, and with several other examples of privatization.

However, it is not this aspect I am going to discuss, but something more specific: that within today’s report one thing highlighted was that cuts in the legal aid budget meant that defence lawyers were unable to commission adequate forensic science. This is linked to the wider issue because it arises from there being a private market in forensic science, but results from a different political decision, that to restrict legal aid.

This brings me to the second news story from this week. Because legal aid is no longer available in the vast majority of family law cases, there has been a huge rise in people representing themselves (in 80% of cases only one party has legal representation, in 60% of cases neither party has legal representation). This means that abusive ex-partners can get to cross-examine their victims in court (something that cannot happen in criminal cases of abuse) causing massive distress.

The issue of the consequences of cuts to the legal aid budget has been highlighted for some time but inevitably it has taken a while before they begin to bite in a widespread way. Lack of legal aid in immigration courts has led to children having to represent themselves. Even where legal aid is available, the cuts have led to a shortage of legal aid lawyers (whose fees have been cut), impacting on housing disputes and causing homelessness.

These are amongst many of the (presumably) unintended consequences of the reform of legal aid provision and serve as an illustration of that concept, discussed in my book (pp. 26-31). But they are of a particular sort. As with the organization of prisons, discussed in another post, or in the superficially very different but in this respect similar case of the organization of dental services, they impact primarily upon the marginal and/or demonized: the poor (obviously), immigrants and asylum seekers, those accused of crimes, those on the edge of homelessness, the (largely) women who suffer domestic abuse. In fact, it is perhaps because the latter group is not confined to the socially marginal that the government have now launched an emergency review of the problem?

It doesn’t seem an outrageous proposition that justice should be available to all. It’s not even particularly expensive to provide it. Although the cuts to the legal aid budget have been large in percentage terms, the absolute amount (£200-£300M a year) is quite trivial in the context of overall government spending. The effects are huge, not just on the individuals affected but on the wider sense of a civil society to which law and justice are both fundamental and paramount.

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