Less Than Nothing

Throughout the tenure of the last Labour Governments, the Legal Aid budget was subject to   both remorseless erosion by inflation (no rate rises after 1993), and direct attack through cuts. There was also the decade long existential crisis of PCT, a   policy to which the Labour Party remained (remains?), wedded as a vehicle   for market consolidation post Carter.

Carter was of course a best friend of Jack Straw erstwhile minister for Justice who appeared to have a visceral dislike of lawyers perhaps an envy of his lawyer peer groups economic success(?) The necessity of the Carter review was based on the false claim   that Legal aid was “out of control”, the subtext was that this was due to lawyer behaviour when in fact its peak expenditure was driven by volume.

The paradox was that when objectives were being set to reduce expenditure in Legal Aid by £200 million or so, it always seems to be 200 million whatever the starting point, billions, were being spent (rightly) on industrial workers compensation schemes and many millions on Saville. This was not an economic rational argument.

Whilst at face value the Labour Party was more sympathetic   to civil law than crime, nevertheless they also presided over the scandal of the averaging of Welfare Benefit payments rewarding the dishonest and indolent for what was once known as the green form scam and they remained singularly uncommitted to increasing scope.

Ultimately their position was that they would have proceeded differently to the Tories by cutting crime to sustain more civil expenditure.

FAST FORWARD TO PRESENT POLICY.

Unless I have missed something, there is not to be a penny restored of coalition cuts, there are no plans to meet vast need and no vision for legal services in the community.

AND YET

What would it cost to have vision? 20% of expenditure more or less is recirculated as VAT. Huge amounts are recycled as tax, national insurance and business rates.

The sum spent effectively on case work produces huge added value for social cohesion (or what was once a popular expression, combating social exclusion). Good lawyers working in the community help sustain a belief in justice, the rule of law, guarantee a fair trial and a quality of arms (Criminal Defence), they lift people out of poverty- (Welfare Benefit work), they change people’s lives forever (immigration), they challenge rapacious landlords (housing), they help prisoners rehabilitate (prison law). The reintegration of civil and crime through small agile high street practices taking advantage of technology is all within easy reach as   is the increase   and restoration of scope. Restoring expenditure to its old peak, £1billion, is nothing in   Government expenditure. It is less than the usual overspend of the Ministry of Defence budget, is a fraction of NHS and DWP expenditure. It is apparently about the same as the amount of bribes paid   on behalf of British   Arms exporters (see George Monbiot’s article in the Guardian 1st October 2014), and the   social effects huge.

What we have instead is a policy so timid, so lacking in ambition and which rests on an emasculated legal aid fund it can be characterised as less than nothing.

Greg Powell

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