The Government’s commitment to access to justice is so important that it even warrants capital letters – it is Access to Justice, no less, which, as I noted in another post recently, must mean that it is an “initiative” (or possibly even an Initiative).
New Labour Initiatives come in two flavours – those whose life-span is the time it takes to publish the press release, and those on which vast sums are lavished before they are quietly ditched a few months later. We can expect to see few of the latter in these hard times but plenty of the former – look at the Department of Health web site, for example, whose Recent Stories page begins with the proud assertion that “A week rarely passes by without the Department making a major announcement”. Can we have some health care as well? we might ask.
The Government’s contribution to Access to Justice has been to hike the civil court fees to prohibitive levels, to cut the civil justice budget, and to narrow still more the range of people entitled to Legal Aid. They are now carrying the latter to its logical conclusion by laying off 600 of the staff employed to handle and process Legal Aid applications.
A Lawyer report Legal Services Commission cuts 600 jobs on 4 November carries the story, including the splendid assertion by a justifiably anonymous spokesman that the transformation of which this is part is “designed to deliver improved services to clients”. Much the same claim was made in a notice stuck recently on a post box near me, explaining that “improved services” was the reason why the late afternoon collection time had been dropped.
Another Lawyer article on 10 November headed LSC job cuts spark fears for access to justice quotes Des Hudson, the Law Society Chief Executive (and a good chap) as expressing concern for both users and providers of Legal Aid. The latter point matters – access to justice requires a body of professional lawyers willing as well as able to give representation to those who cannot afford it. Access to Justice, with capitals and a Minister (Bridget Prentice) who counts this among her specific responsibilities, deserves better than this.
Businesses can choose not to litigate as a commercial matter or go and fight elsewhere – a real fear with long-term impact on London’s already hard-hit economy. Local authorities can simply abandon work which they did formerly, as they have done with child care proceedings since the recent (and vast) fees hike for such applications. What advice, I wonder, would Ms Prentice give to individuals who need access to justice?