Tag: Legal Aid Bill

Access to justice is the foundation of democracy

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“Ministers keep using the mantra that their proposals are to protect the most vulnerable when, quite obviously, they are the exact opposite. If implemented their measures would, far from protecting the most vulnerable, directly harm them. Whatever they do in the end, Her Majesty’s Government should stop this 1984 Orwellian-type misuse of language.”  – Lord Bach, discussing the Legal Aid Bill.

Source: Hansard, Column 1557, 19 May, 2011.

The Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949 was a British Act of Parliament which extended the welfare state to ensure that those unable to pay for a solicitor were able to access free legal help. It was designed and implemented to allow poor and vulnerable people to have a genuine access to justice, and was a key part of our post war settlement.

Massive funding reductions, implemented through the contested and controversial Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, (LAPSO) removed in one fell swoop public funding for huge and crucial areas of civil work – including welfare benefits, debt, immigration, domestic violence, clinical negligence, employment rights and most housing. What this means in basic terms is the poor have no access to justice, and at a time when government is relentlessly encroaching on poor people’s freedoms and rights.

The Legal Aid Bill has been cumulatively devastating to the provision of legal services and is a savage attack on one of our fundamental constitutional principles – it seriously undermines the rule of law.  The government is ensuring that those affected the most by their draconian policies are unable to challenge government decisions. It’s now very difficult to get advice and representation, and judicial reviews are being stifled as a consequence. Yet the number of judicial reviews involving government departments has almost doubled since 2010, the government has revealed. It’s increased by 92%.

The figures were revealed in the same week that the House of Lords thwarted the government’s attempt to restrict judicial review. In particular, peers voted down Ministry of Justice attempts to create a presumption that those who apply to the court to intervene in a judicial review case should have to pay their own costs. Cameron has made it clear that he regards judicial reviews, audits, consultations, impact assessments and other democratic mechanisms that ensure government transparency, accountability, and serve as safeguards of our human rights, as “barriers to getting things done.”

Cameron has confirmed that he wants civil servants to stop conducting routine equality impact assessments for legislation, which assess the likely effect of new policies on women, disabled people and people from ethnic minorities, and to end cumbersome 12-week public consultations that delayed ministers from pressing ahead with their plans. He said that such safeguards to the rights of protected groups are  “bureaucratic rubbish”.

The legal aid “reform” was introduced at a time when the Government have implemented other radical, controversial and contentious cuts to health, education and welfare, and it is no coincidence that the legal aid Bill will curtail justice for those with legitimate needs at a time when draconian Tory policies such as the bedroom tax will most likely result in a massive increase of numbers of people needing and seeking justice and redress.

This will mean the compounding of effects of other fundamental  human rights breaches, legally unchecked, because of the profound impact of multiple, grossly unfair and unjust Tory-led policies. Each policy hitting the same vulnerable citizens, to their detriment, over and over.

As a former barrister at Tooks chambers, Emily Thornberry MP has condemned the closure of the “exceptional set”: “We were the chambers of the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, the Lawrence family… and we have closed because of the legal aid cuts. But this isn’t just about lawyers. The legal aid system has to begin with the vulnerable; ensuring people get a voice and access to justice, and ensuring that our legal system contains the checks and balances that we need in a democratic society.”

Thornberry, speaking last year to a packed conference in a Brighton, criticised the government for the ideological nature of the cuts it has introduced – and in particular, the attack on judicial review. She said:

“The government doesn’t want to be held accountable in the courts so they’re making it harder for people to judicially review them.  Nobody wants to be judicially reviewed, but it goes with the territory.  It’s important for people to be able to hold the government to account in the courts.”

The legal aid bill was defeated 14 times in the House of Lords and ultimately passed after a tied vote. Services and individuals feeling the impact are currently giving evidence to the House of Commons justice committee. The Equality and Human Rights Commission had warned in 2012 that: reducing the scope of legal aid in a number of areas in civil and family law will create serious practical barriers to access to justice, potentially in breach of Article 6(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).   

This is a government that clearly cares nothing for being held accountable for its actions, for public scrutiny and critical debate, and for justice and human rights. In fact since 2010, they have steadily eroded all of these crucial safeguards and democratic criteria through the implementation of policies that are extremely authoritarian and discriminatory.

It’s very dangerous to allow the State to decide which cases constitute the most need. In a free, democratic and fair Society, each and every single individual has equal legal worth and entitlement to opportunity to bring about legal justice. The Government choosing which cases are most “worthwhile” undermines this very premise of legal equality which is so fundamental to the notion of liberty.  Everybody has a right to take any grievances they have, which have invoked legal ramifications, to court. Everybody ought to have an absolute, inalienable right to free and fair trial in a so-called free, democratic country.

Such profoundly unjust legislated inequality is not something we expect to see in a country which was once a beacon of Western liberty. The State must fund the means of contract enforcement and free and fair trial legal costs, for those who cannot afford it.

If the State fails to fulfil this contingent function, then we simply cease to be free.

7005_494073677328832_658777491_n (1)Picures courtesy of Robert Livingstone

 


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The Tories are not simply “out of touch”, their policies are deliberate and malevolent

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It’s a common belief that Tory policies, which are inhumane to the core, and directed at taking money and support from the most vulnerable, have happened because of a kind of naivety, lack of experience, or a simple egocentricity of the privileged. Or general incompetence.

These certainly may well contribute to the obvious lack of joined-up thinking, apparent when we step back to consider that the most vulnerable in our so-called civilised society are suffering and dying as a direct consequence of recent legislations and “reforms,” but it certainly doesn’t explain why the Tories persistently and historically CHOOSE to continue to ignore any other account of social reality but their own. That implies some intentionality, to me. Selective perception involves a certain degree of free will.

So we are now almost through the doorway to the “mad or bad” debate.

Tories also reduce every single human deed to an underlying motivation of greed for financial gain, no matter what the circumstances. They know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Some would argue that this is classic Freudian projection. But that doesn’t account for the fact that the Tories normalise and make a virtue of the financial gain principle, for the wealthy, big business and of course, the Tories themselves.

These motivations are held to be universal, and are translated into a vice when it comes to ordinary, everyday people, or in particular, poor and vulnerable people. That doesn’t hang together coherently at all, nor does it corroborate the view that the Tories are simply out of touch with everyday experience, since there is a deep and fundamental – and very apparent – contradiction here. It is a very significant flaw in their ideological grammar.

Human beings are not static, when it comes to ideas and beliefs: we are capable of learning, and in a variety of ways: though experience, through the experience of others, through historical accounts, evidence and so on. The Tories simply choose to overlook the need. They prefer, instead, to stay put, or regress, and simply insist that they know best. Challenge a Tory, and they often believe that simply talking louder, and over the top of you will somehow make what they are saying “right.” They are not called “Conservative” for nothing – they do like to maintain a status quo and resist change.

Well … notions of change apply only to their idea of how a society ought to be, hence the proliferation of legislation these past couple of years. The Conservatives are unravelling the progress we have made as a society, because they prefer the simplicity of basic feudal relationships. I’m not really joking here, unfortunately.

It’s as if the clocks stopped the moment the Tory-led Coalition took Office, and now we are losing a decade a day.

The truth is that austerity is NOT about deficit-cutting. It’s just the cover for Tory ideology. It is actually about shrinking the State and squeezing the public sector until it becomes marginal, then non-existent, in an entirely market-driven society. The banking crisis-generated deficit has been a gift to the Tories in enabling them to launch the narrative that public expenditure has to be massively cut back, which they would never have been able to get away with without the deficit-reduction excuse in the first place.

Austerity won’t benefit the economy: it will damage it further, since the cuts will reduce the income of those that spend proportionally the most money and add to the economy – the poorest. Taking more money out of an already struggling economy and impacting local economies will simply exacerbate the problem.

“We can safely abandon the doctrine of the eighties, namely that the rich were not working because they had too little money, the poor because they had too much” – John Kenneth Galbraith

Nope, that hasn’t happened, the Tories are still taking money from the poor and handing it to the wealthy. Why? Is it because the Tories are phenomenologically impoverished and incapable of learning, ever? No, I don’t think so.

I think it’s worse than that. I think that the Tories DO understand the consequences of their ideologically-driven policies, but they don’t care. Money for the wealthy has to come from somewhere, after all. The whole “out of touch/lack of experience” proposition overlooks the fact that the Tories refuse to listen, quite deliberately, they exercise authoritarian tactics to shut people up – such as excluding those people from debate who oppose their views – witnessed during the passage of the Health and Social Care Bill, for example. Then there is the monitoring” of the media for alternative political “biases.”

That is a quite deliberate narrowing down of experience, not naivety, based on a lack of understanding. That’s deliberate, calculated and certainly bears all of the hallmarks of authoritarianism. That’s the wilful imposition of a pre-moulded, dystopic Tory version of reality onto a largely unwilling population.

The propaganda regarding unemployed, sick and disabled people is not based on naivety either: it is deliberate, and calculated, a horrible and wicked attempt to justify their small state ideology and punitive approach to stripping welfare provision from the poorest, and from vulnerable citizens to redistribute funds from the public purse to the already wealthy.

David Cameron, Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling have all contributed a selection of propagandic pieces of work to the press – largely the Sun and the Daily Mail. The language they use – words like “scrounger” “fraud” and “workshy” and the implied “burden on the state,” together with their knowledge that so-called benefit fraud was a mere 0.7% (and that includes DWP’s own errors, too) indicates clearly that the policies aimed at removing welfare provision, and the propaganda campaign that has led to an increase in hate crimes directed at sick and disabled people, are intentional.

10,600 sick and disabled people died last year between January and November, many within six weeks of their ESA claim closing. It’s very telling that the Department for Work and Pensions do not monitor or account for just how many of those were passed as “fit for work” by Atos, or awaiting Appeal.

Furthermore, this Government introduced targets which were written into the Atos contract when they renewed it in 2010: 7 out of 8 sick and disabled people to lose their benefits.

Bearing in mind that those targets exist BEFORE those sick and disabled people are assessed (and the Government have also redesigned the work capability assessment to make sure that there is a heavy bias towards withdrawing people’s support) then we can reasonably infer that the Government see those deaths – that have happened as a result of absolute poverty and extreme distress, some of our most vulnerable citizens have had their means of meeting their basic survival needs removed – as an intended outcome.

That the Government have not acted upon the high number of deaths associated with their welfare “reforms” is truly outrageous, and also indicates quite plainly, to me, that this “outcome” is not simply a by-product of their legislation, or incompetence, or lack of experience: it is calculated and intentional.

This is much, much worse than a little “Tory egocentricity,” incompetence, phenomenological ineptitude, or naivety: this is the deliberate, calculated and wholesale destruction of every State mechanism of support for the most vulnerable citizens as well as for the “ordinary” person. If people cannot meet their basic needs – food, shelter and so on, they die. That is common sense, everyone knows that.

Yet this Government are taking away people’s only means of support. Welfare, the safety net paid for by the tax paying public to ensure no-one dies of starvation or exposure. This Government have stolen our collective funds for social security, and blamed those they have stolen it from for their deed.

They blame the poor for poverty. They blame the unemployed for unemployment. But we know that the Government are to blame. Have you ever noticed that, historically, whenever poverty grows and inequalities become wider and deeper, look to the helm and lo and behold, we have a Tory-led Government steering the way. We need to put this Government out of our misery.

Every single “reform” has been about taking money away from the poorest and some of the most vulnerable people. The fact that the Legal Aid Bill has been timed for implementation next year, when the horrific consequences of the welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and the new council tax will become very apparent, as well as the Health and Social Care reforms, indicates quite plainly that these policies have been planned and coordinated for a long time.

The Legal Aid Bill means that challenging the Government regarding the reforms will be very difficult. Indeed, the Coalition have been steadily removing the essential democratic processes that safeguard our human rights and enable us to challenge effectively.

This is certainly an authoritarian Government.

We should hang their heads in shame.

How truly despicable. How utterly horrifying that they are getting away with it. There is an increasingly discernible taint of eugenics embedded in Tory ideology. This, and the propaganda, smoke and mirrors, media scapegoating diversions and theft from the poorest to handout to the wealthiest –  these actions are intentional, calculated and are being increasingly inflicted and administered, whilst the general population waits passively in the wings, shrugging off the blow by hammer blow accounts: more bad news of further Tory cuts, more devastating consequences.

Too many are finding temporary distractions, watching the idiot box, hoping quietly that those things they can see from the corner of their eye are not real.

Oh, but they are.

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Hanlon’s razor is an eponymous adage that allows the elimination of unlikely explanations for a phenomenon. It reads: “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

However, I always considered malice and stupidity to be strongly correlated characteristics.