Earlier this week, Sadiq Khan MP ‘admitted Labour could not reinstate £600m of legal aid cuts imposed by the government’. These are cuts which continue to have a very real impact on our society. They’ve left parents unrepresented when family judges are considering the future care of their children. They have deterred workers who are racially or sexually discriminated against in the workplace from bringing actions in the employment tribunals and priced out those who have suffered loss from bringing claims in the civil courts.
The cuts have also driven the best lawyers away from publicly-funded civil work into private practice, and they have dried up the recruitment of junior barristers. We now face a ticking time-bomb in our legal system: where are tomorrow’s skilled prosecutors and judges going to come from?
We hear a great deal about the NHS. Access to free health care matters to us all. But so does access to justice. It is the most vulnerable who need help most often and it is often they who can least afford it. Our forefathers understood this. They established the fair principle that whoever you are, if you have a demonstrable need for representation in court, you will not have to pay for it in your hour of need.
That principle has for several years now, been for sale. At its heart there was a noble idea. It was that if you or a member of your family were suddenly in trouble, you had access not merely to a second-rate lawyer, but to the best available lawyer, commensurate with the seriousness of the case, at a reasonable price to the tax payer. This ideal has become badly tarnished. It has almost gone in practice, and a two-tier system of justice – one for the rich and one for the poor - is being ushered in. Do we care? Our political leaders appear to judge that we do not.
Both the Coalition and Labour seem willing to lead our society into two-tier justice. One sort of lawyer for the rich and another for the poor. We see how that works in other societies. But it is now happening here, on our watch. We should all play a part in drawing attention to that obvious fact. It is time to wake up from the sleepwalk and object loudly to the path down which successive governments seem willing to lead us. Those that want our vote must adjust their priorities. The NHS, which costs billions, is ring-fenced. Justice, which cost a great deal less, is for sale.
It is time for a political party that truly believes in fairness to reverse these cuts. The cost to the Treasury is relatively small. If it is not done, the cost to society is immense.
Andrew Langdon QC is leader of the Western Circuit
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