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One law for the rich, another for the poor – literally

68-legal_hammerThere is no conceivable justification for slashing £220m from criminal legal aid and removing the defendant’s right to choose a solicitor. None more, at least, than a wilful determination gratuitously to hobble one of the fundamental pillars of the welfare state: equality before the law. This is yet another manifestation of the Tory objective to establish a fully-fledged Market State in which what you get depends entirely on your wealth, whether created or inherited, and what you earn.

It’s not only that this is deeply unjust in a profoundly unequal society – and one which has become significantly more unequal since 2010 – but it will unquestionably lead to serious miscarriages of justice and radically undermine Britain’s well-deserved reputation for equal legal rights for all.

The essence of this backward step is that in future legal aid contracts will be awarded, not on the basis of the defendant’s choice of solicitor which is now being taken away, but through price-competitive tendering to the lowest bidder. This will obviously lead to lowest-cost justice at the expense of high-quality justice, made worse by the price cap being imposed at a level at a sixth below previous rates paid. It is expected that the number of contracts will fall by some three-quarters, and preventing a defendant from choosing who should represent him is justified by the MOJ on the basis that it will guarantee economies of scale.

There are several other nasty little cutbacks when one comes to examine the small print. The bizarre MOJ proposal to pay lawyers the same rate whether a guilty plea is entered early or late will lead to a perverse incentive to plead guilty. Those who have ‘little or no conncection to this country’ will not be able to claim any support for civil legal actions in Britain. Prisoners who complain about their treatment in jail won’t in future get any legal aid. And if you seek to take out a judicial review of some measure, but someone in authority deems that you have less than a 50-50 chance of success, you will get no legal aid.

Significantly also legal aid is increasingly becoming a means-tested exercise, with the ceiling for eligibility now being further squeezed down further. In future if the disposable household income, which will include the joint income of two or more earners, is more than £37,500 a year, i.e. 50% above average earnings, no legal aid will be available in the Crown court. It need hardly be added that since employers, landlords and companies are generally well-capitalised, all these measures which curb entitlement to legal aid must substantially tilt the balance of justice against the poor and disadvantaged and increasingly put the wealthy and powerful in effect beyond the reach of the law.

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