In three days’ time, we have a general election. So far, we have heard a great deal from the parties about who will be allying with who after the election, or not, but little about the detail of their promised policies. Not that promises mean much anymore, after the Liberal Democrats’ now famous u turn on their promise to oppose increases in tuition fees.
But their policies are the reason we turn out every four or five years to cast our vote, and after the socio-economic firestorm of the last five years, many people feel that reparation is required, and the parties’ policies should reflect that.
No right-minded voter would vote on the basis of one single issue. However there are issues whose effects percolate throughout the entire fabric of society. Justice is one of them.
In the film, Devil’s Advocate, after Al Pacino has just told Keanu Reeves that he is his father (oh, and Satan – who’d have thought…), Keanu Reeves asks him why he chose to manifest himself on Earth as a lawyer:
Keanu Reeves (Kevin Lomax); “Why the law?”
Al Pacino (John Milton/Satan); “Because the law, my boy, puts us into everything”.
The story is thankfully fiction, but the point above is not only a fact, but a blindingly obvious one at that. Which makes it all the more extraordinary that a seemingly intelligent group of politicians can have inflicted so much damage on the legal system of England and Wales.
Over the last five years, the Conservatives have taken it upon themselves to mount a sustained and vigorous attack on the rights of the common man. Among their more well-known policies, they have:
- Introduced the “Bedroom Tax”, and Benefits sanctions for the most minor of defaults; both have resulted not only in widespread hardship, but even in tragedy;
- Withdrawn legal aid for both family and criminal work, and have left convicted defendants who have pleaded not guilty facing payment of high fees, leading many to believe that many accused parties may prefer to plead guilty rather than roll the dice at trial;
- Stated their intention of reducing the costs of civil litigation, and did so, and then raised court fees by an average of 600%. How raising court fees is supposed to be compatible with the Government’s identified issue that “The costs of civil litigation are too high, and are fuelled by no win no fee conditional fee agreements (CFAs)”, is anyone’s guess, and is just another illustration of the undisguised hypocrisy and contempt which has characterised much of the policy of the last five years.
- Increased tribunal fees resulting in a reduction in tribunal applications of approximately 70%. The only logical result from this is that employees who have been unfairly dismissed are not taking action because they cannot afford the fees.
- Taken action to restrict access to Judicial Review, one of the most powerful tools available to the people when seeking to hold the Government to account.
As a result of the above changes, one survey states that people are now more concerned about access to justice than access to free healthcare. This point is reinforced by the fact that GPs are reporting that they are seeing increasing numbers of patients with unresolved legal needs during their consultations.
It is not only the public, but Judges who are becoming more and more concerned at this withdrawal of justice from the masses. Sir Alan Moses recently said, “No one seems to care about the plight of those who have neither the ability to protect themselves in a legal sense and cannot afford a lawyer”. And for those brave people who do try to present their own case, the courts cannot cope.
An open letter was recently written by more than a hundred Peers, lawyers and doctors, requiring that the new Government, whatever creed it may be, takes steps to restore justice to the people.
This plea has become lost among the headlines, and was no doubt viewed by some in Whitehall as just another whining and self-serving attempt at self-promotion by those who submitted it.
I believe it is a genuine appeal to the next incumbents to fight a cancer in our society, which was born out of, and is growing due to, this Government’s policy. I further believe that there are serious long term consequences looming if some of the changes that have been introduced in the law are not reversed.
Cameron came out just over a year ago and finally admitted that he was not imposing austerity just in order to repair the economy, but because it was the way he believed society should stay. He said that the Country needs “to do more with less”. If these policies continue, many people, almost all of them less wealthy and more vulnerable members of our society, will get less for less, not more for less.
The Tories talk about rising employment figures, but the reality is, with checks and balances on employers reduced, (see this article for a summary) zero hours contracts and under employment more prevalent, a sick work force with a growing reliance on food banks, and this can only get worse.
From my long years of experience as a personal injury lawyer who has worked on employers’ and public liability claims, I know that, whilst the large majority of employers may well treat their employees fairly, many don’t, especially the lower paid employees. The above changes are already making that worse.
Add to that restrictions on the quality of representation already being seen due to the introduction of fixed legal fees for injury claims, the withdrawal of legal aid for most family work and its reduction in criminal work, and the doubling of the Small Claims Limit in April 2013, and it is apparent that justice is no longer a foregone conclusion in most adversarial cases, particularly in low value disputes. Even the Master of the Rolls believes this to be the case.
Women and children are staying in violent relationships because they cannot afford to take legal action.
And finally, we could shortly have innocent people pleading guilty, simply because they cannot afford the consequences of losing, whether they are innocent or not.
Cameron heralded his 2010 campaign with his flagship policy – the “Big Society”. What he has achieved in the last five years is no Big Society, but a “Sick Society”, where success replaces justice as a commodity to be bought by those with the means to afford it. Meanwhile for those who cannot, in the longer term, the consequences are likely to be;
- with fewer controls on employers, combined with an ever more competitive marketplace, there is likely to be a steady increase in the number of unemployed and underemployed people (zero hours contracts and those on unpaid apprenticeships and internships notwithstanding);
- an increase in the number of innocent defendants choosing to plead guilty in order to avoid punitive court fees if their case is lost;
- an uphill struggle for small businesses and injured people, who will find it increasingly harder to achieve redress against defendants with greater means;
- a long term deterioration in familial relations, due to all of the above, and also due to there being no effective method available for spouses and parents who cannot afford legal advice and assistance to resolve their issues;
- a concomitant impact on the social and emotional development of children, the nature of which can only be guessed at, but which is obviously not going to improve;
- with all of the above we are also likely to see an increase in mental health issues with a resultant increasing burden on the NHS. In fact, this has already been found to be the case, even in children.
None of this is likely to have a beneficial effect upon the country’s GDP.
All of us, regardless of our position in society, could find ourselves down on our luck. A divorce, a redundancy, a repossession, a County Court Judgement could be all that separates us from those looking to the State for support.
If we were to do so today, however substantial our contribution to the exchequer over the years, we are unlikely to meet with any sympathy. In fact, Mr Cameron recently summarised the Government’s position succinctly, when he suggested that those requesting financial help to bury a dead war hero should seek a “charitable solution”.
At some stage, if not in the next Parliament, someone with the power and authority to make a difference, will realise that, in the words of Al Pacino, “the law, my boy, puts us into everything”. Hopefully they will then be able to begin undoing some of the damage that the Conservatives have done over the last 5 years.
I just hope it doesn’t take too long for the penny to drop.
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