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Lib Dem Lawyers’ Open Memo calls for more vocal party support for legal aid

April 20, 2018 12:07 PM
By Antony Hook in Liberal Democrat Voice

Legal AidImagine you are charged with a criminal offence. It has the potential to result in loss of your freedom, reputation, job, family, custody of your children and so on. You will want a trained professional to help you. Someone to explain to you the law that applies to the offence, what the state needs to prove against you and what defences may be available. Someone to scrutinise the evidence against you objectively and assist you in presenting your defence. Someone to protect you from any abuses of power by the state's police or prosecutors. And if you are guilty, someone to help you explain to the court any good reasons for a measure of leniency that might apply before you are punished.

Anyone who believes in a just, decent society would want anyone who is accused to have that kind of assistance. It is assistance without which we cannot be sure, as a society, that we are accurately punishing the guilty and protecting the not guilty.

But, right, now if you are charged with an offence in England & Wales you are likely to have serious problems finding any representation.

If you have the means you may be able to pay privately to have a lawyer represent you. The problem with that is that even if you are found to be not guilty, under a recent law change, you may not get your costs back - as Nigel Evans MP found out to his cost. Right now, we live in a country where the state can accuse you wrongly and when a jury of your neighbours acquit you are still left vastly out of pocket. That is not fairness and in so far as we are all exposed to that risk, we are not living in a state of freedom.

But what about legal aid? Won't the state provide representation for you?

No. Not at the moment. On 1 April 2018 (the date is no joke) the government brought into force changes to AGFS (the scheme under which barristers and solicitor-advocates doing criminal work are paid) which mean there is an effective 40% real terms cut since 1997. I cannot think of any public service that could work in 2018 with 40% less funding than in 1997. Following an overwhelming vote of the Criminal Bar Association members, most qualified lawyers are refusing to accept work under the new scheme. For most, this will mean a complete loss of income for the duration of the dispute and people are permanently leaving criminal work, or law completely, in droves.

What is at stake here though is not lawyers and their pay but rather the freedom of all us who, if we are accused of crime and everything we value is at stake, need advice and assistance to put our side of the story as well as it can be.

Take a look around your local court house (constitutionally they are, and have to be, open to the public). Many are in appalling state of repair - a significant number are not even fully accessible to the disabled - signifying to everyone who comes into them the lack of value that those in power attach to the place where justice is supposed to be done.

There is a moral challenge for Liberal Democrats to speak out loudly in defence of legal aid.

Lawyers tend to be people of liberal values. Most have a commitment to the rule of law and human rights. Most believe in a fair society and an economy that has a mix of private and public ownership. Most are progressive in their outlook. In other countries, lawyers have been keen supporters of the liberal party. In the USA, lawyers have helped the Democratic Party prosper and elect liberal presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Barak Obama.

I want to see Liberal Democrats return to power in this country. I anticipate that a necessary step towards that is for the party to build alliances with many groups of people, including legal aid lawyers, whose interests and values are decent, honourable and aligned with our party's vision for society.

So, far the party has made no statement at all on the AGFS dispute. This must change.

I and 18 other Liberal Democrat lawyers, law student or others who care about this issue have written an Open Memo to our MPs, Peers and the party's Federal Board. We call for the party to support the CBA's recommendations and generally to take a bold stand in defending legal aid as part of a civilised society.

You can read the memo via my website here.

* Antony Hook was #2 on the South East European list in 2014, is the English Party's representative on the Federal Executive and produces this sites EU Referendum Roundup.