Ross Clark

Why MPs should not stop legal aid reform

Why MPs should not stop legal aid reform
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There is never more excitement on the Left than when a Tory MP recants and concludes that his heartless party and its callous social policies are wrong. So it was on Friday when Nigel Evans, MP for Ribble Valley, announced that he had had a ‘road to Damascus conversion’ and realised that David Cameron’s legal aid reforms – which reduced the eligibility for legal aid – had made life harder for those who found themselves on the wrong end of a court case. It wasn’t pure altruism which had led him to this conclusion – Evans himself was acquitted on nine charges of sexual assault in 2014. While the case against him fell apart so, too, did his financial security. He complained that it had swallowed up his entire £130,000 life savings.

It is, as he says, wrong that anyone should find themselves so out of pocket when they have been acquitted of criminal charges. I don’t blame him for feeling bitter – I would, too, as would I think anyone. But I don’t come to the same conclusion as Evans apparently does: that changes to legal aid be reversed and the whole system of legal aid re-inflated. There was a very good reason that the Cameron government hit upon legal aid as one of the many areas where cuts needed to be made in order to cut the enormous deficit left behind by Gordon Brown. A Council of Europe report in 2014 – after the legal aid reforms began to take effect – calculated that UK taxpayers were spending £2 billion a year on legal aid, compared with just £290 million in France and £272 million in Germany. Per capita, UK taxpayers were paying £26.59 a year, compared with a European average of £7.10. Our spending, on a per capita basis, was second only to that of Norway, where virtually everything is more expensive.

Far from slashing legal aid spending to the bone, the government’s reforms – which were later curtailed – were only seeking to save £215 million a year. They did not envisage bringing legal aid spending down to anything like the European average. British legal aid spending is so high because our lawyers are paid so much and because we have an adversarial legal system that creates excessive costs. Lawyers have complained that cuts to the budget have led to people having to represent themselves in court – and ending up ‘bewildered’ as they fail to understand arcane procedures.

That may be true, but rather than force taxpayers to shell out every higher sums to employ lawyers on behalf of people of limited means, why not reform the system so that participants in a legal case do not have to rely on representation from pricey barristers? If France and Germany can have legal systems that cost the taxpayer a fraction of the sums we pay, then we could have one too.

I am not holding my breath. The British legal system is a conspiracy against the layman, employing needlessly complex language and procedures, designed to keep high-earning lawyers in employment. The law is the one British industry which never seems to be properly reformed. Why? It doesn’t help that there are so many lawyers in in the House of Commons – out of 650 MPs, 38 are barristers by trade and 51 solicitors. By contrast, there are just 10 doctors. It would be a good start if we elected to Parliament rather fewer people with a vested interest in blocking legal reform.